Bridging the ‘Data Divide’: Collaborating to Ensure a More Equitable Future For All

Technological advancements in the digital era have unlocked the power of data, creating opportunities for innovation, economic growth, and positive societal development. As the world embraces these new data technologies, though, a significant gap has emerged between those with access to these tools and information, and those without.

Underserved communities, developing nations, and marginalized individuals often lack the resources required to access and leverage such tools effectively. And what’s more, the philanthropic organizations that are meant to support them often suffer from the same lack of access, primarily due to tight budgets and insufficient capacity to learn the skills necessary to close this gap. This “data divide” poses a serious challenge, exacerbating existing inequalities, widening the gap between the haves and the have-nots, perpetuating systemic biases, and leaving societies further fragmented. If left unresolved, this issue can hinder positive social progress and perpetuate existing inequalities for generations to come.

As an issue that directly impacts the communities that need the most support, it’s become especially crucial for the philanthropic sector to work with each other to determine how best to resolve these data disparities – and for technology providers to work with them to help shape and transform their ideas into realistic, workable solutions. 

With the data divide looming large and ever-widening, there are some critical actions that must be taken to help in thoughtfully and intentionally bridging this gap moving forward:

Position education as the key to progress:

Education plays a pivotal role in bridging the data divide. By equipping individuals and organizations in the philanthropic sector with the necessary skills and knowledge to effectively collect and manage data, they will be empowered to participate fully in the data-driven world. By collaborating with technology providers to offer training focused on data literacy, computational thinking, and critical analysis, the philanthropic sector can ensure that every individual has the capacity to utilize data effectively. 

Foundations must fund the entire nonprofit:

What foundations fund is just as important as how they fund. Coverage of actual operating costs, including technology needs, is critical for grantees’ organizational health. In short, philanthropic organizations must be strong to have an impact.

As grantmakers and technology providers determine how best to help nonprofits succeed in today’s data-driven environment, one practice stands out as part of the solution: general operating support. Nonprofits can use such unrestricted funding as they see fit to address urgent and emerging issues, boost salaries and benefits, and, just as importantly, invest in the technology and training needed to close the looming data divide.

Improve infrastructure and connectivity:

Developing a robust digital infrastructure and ensuring affordable, reliable internet connectivity are essential steps in addressing the data divide. Technology provider TechSoup, for example, found that 80% of nearly 12,000 organizations it surveyed said services were disrupted because their communities lacked internet access. 

Governments, philanthropic organizations, technology providers, and stakeholders must work together to expand broadband networks, reducing costs and making technology accessible to all. This includes expanding coverage to rural and remote areas where connectivity gaps often persist, ensuring that no one is left behind due to their geographical location.

Address the data ethics gap:

As we bridge the data divide, ethical considerations must also be addressed. Data technologies, if not regulated and governed properly, can raise concerns regarding privacy, surveillance, and control. Ensuring stringent data protection laws, inclusive policies, and ethical frameworks can help to build trust and safeguard individuals’ rights. By addressing these concerns head-on, the philanthropic community can work with tech providers and government entities to create an environment in which everyone feels safe and encouraged to engage with data.

Increase collaboration and open access to impact data:

It’s imperative that philanthropic organizations start regularly sharing data with each other to the extent that it is possible and ethical. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, for example, has an open-access policy that commits to information sharing and transparency. Leveraging public data and collaborating on shareable data allows all stakeholders to benchmark progress. It also encourages organizations to take data more seriously, reflect on how individual teams are managing data, and forge trust among data collaborators and stakeholders. Ushering in an era of greater transparency and deeper communication through an open data exchange within the sector is one way to ensure more people can leverage data at a wider scope than ever before. 

Implement an impact measurement and management (IMM) strategy:

Another powerful way to drive a more equitable world through data is for philanthropic organizations to work with technology providers to create and adopt a sustainable impact measurement framework. Quite simply, it is not enough for organizations to focus efforts only on improving education, infrastructure, and ethics around data. Organizations must also shed light on their own data management gaps and build better internal systems. Implementing a strategic impact measurement methodology will ensure that data is being defined, collected, analyzed, and leveraged properly. Building a framework around key impact indicators will measure the positive impact being made by the organization and verify that impact data comprehensively reflects the proper target audiences and issues. 

Overcoming the data divide is a matter of technological and moral progress. Bridging this gap requires a concerted effort from governments, policymakers, educators, foundations, technology providers, and the nonprofit organizations who stand to benefit most from equal access to data. Focusing efforts on establishing affordable connectivity and relevant education, funding nonprofit operating and technology costs, creating ecosystems for ethical data collaboration, and implementing proper impact data management systems are just a few of the many ways the philanthropic sector can collaborate with tech providers and other key stakeholders to narrow the data divide. By dismantling barriers and empowering marginalized communities, we can unlock the full potential of data, enabling a more equitable and inclusive future for all.

Charles Sword is the Chief Revenue Officer at UpMetrics, a leading impact measurement and management software company that’s revolutionizing the way mission-driven organizations harness data to drive positive social outcomes. With a wealth of experience in business development and strategic planning, Charles is responsible for all aspects of market development for the company and is passionate about helping the world’s leading foundations, nonprofits and impact investors to drive accelerated social and environmental change. Mr. Sword has held leadership positions for multiple market-leading technology organizations including Blueprint, CAST, and iRise among others, and continues to hone his understanding of market dynamics and innovative strategies to unlock new opportunities and drive growth at UpMetrics.