BRUSSELS—Data-driven innovations can help tackle pressing social challenges in Europe if policymakers break down regulatory barriers and devote more resources to bridge digital inequalities, according to a new report from the Center for Data Innovation. The Center, a think tank that focuses on data policy, points to examples throughout Europe where data is being used to address issues from high unemployment to the refugee crisis, but suggests that the continent is failing to fully capitalize on opportunities to use data for social good.
“Changing demographics plus shifting economic and political tides in Europe are creating enormous challenges,” said Daniel Castro, the Center’s director and the report’s co-author. “The population is getting older, many young people are struggling to find work, and the population of migrants and refugees is swelling. Data-driven tools hold the key to tackling many of these challenges by better informing policy and program design, improving service delivery, and spurring innovations. Unfortunately, progress has been uneven across the EU due to resource constraints, digital inequality, and restrictive data regulations. Europe will be missing an opportunity to address these challenges unless policymakers commit to using data for social good.”
The Center points to several examples where governments and nonprofits are already using data-driven tools to address issues like employment or refugee integration. For example, the EU is funding the development of a tool to help job seekers navigate the labor market. It combines a large volume of data in one place with tailored recommendations to help job seekers save time and money in their searches. Another tool available across Europe is RefAid, an app that compiles information on all aid services in a given area, so aid workers can coordinate outreach and refugees can easily see what resources are available to them.
While these examples illustrate the potential to use data to address social challenges, the Center says relatively few European governments and nonprofits are taking full advantage of these opportunities. The report concludes there are three main reasons: First, nonprofits and government agencies typically lack a “culture of data” or organization-wide strategies and processes around the collection and analysis of data. Second, the European labor market suffers from a shortage of data scientists, data-literate managers, and even employees with basic IT skills. Third, European policies and practices impede the kind of data collection, use, and reuse that is critical for innovative approaches to social inclusion and protection.
The Center proposes a number of actions policymakers in the EU should take to enable the public and private sectors to more effectively tackle the social challenges of a changing Europe through data-driven innovation. These include:
- Supporting the collection and use of relevant, timely data on the populations they seek to better serve;
- Participating in and funding cross-sector collaboration with data experts to make better use of data collected by governments and nonprofit organizations working on social issues;
- Focusing government research funding on data analysis of social inequalities and requiring grant applicants to submit plans for data use and sharing;
- Establishing appropriate consent and sharing exemptions in data protection regulations for social science research; and
- Revising EU regulations to accommodate social-service organizations and their institutional partners in exploring innovative uses of data.
“With advances in digital technology, we are better equipped than ever to collect, analyze, and act on data to help build a more inclusive, welcoming, and prosperous Europe,” said Nick Wallace, the Center’s Brussels-based senior policy analyst. “But these benefits will not be widespread unless the EU and member states adopt a coherent strategy for putting data at the service of society. Doing so will not only help address important social problems, but will also support the EU’s budding data economy.”