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Network connectivity is becoming a basic social good

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Technology has enabled unequivocal social gains in recent years. In a session on The Future of Digital Economy, they said that digital tools, from farming to healthcare to education, have fundamentally transformed communities and raised living standards around the world, and greater network connectivity has the potential to improve livelihoods even further.

Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman, Google, USA, said: “Almost all of the problems we debate can be solved by more broadband connectivity.” Schmidt cited broadband as the key public policy initiative that can promote social benefits ranging from good governance to education to human rights.

Despite this potential, there are a number of barriers to expanding access to digital technology globally. One of the biggest comes from market fragmentation and the rise of different standards that limit information flows. “Is fragmentation happening? Quite frankly, there is a temptation,” said Vittorio Colao, Chief Executive Officer, Vodafone Group, United Kingdom. Colao cited the lack of harmonization of regulatory regimes as an impediment to increasing network access.

High costs of bandwidth are another problem. Smartphone users in parts of the developed world pay higher data costs every day than some people in the developing world use for daily survival. Satya Nadella, Chief Executive Officer, Microsoft Corporation, USA, said that in order to expand connectivity, “there’s a consensus that low-cost bandwidth is a must”.

Ensuring that the gains of technology are distributed evenly is by no means guaranteed. Unless policy-makers and technologists take active measures to promote inclusion, women will not get the same opportunities. Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer and Member of the Board, Facebook, said: It’s something that takes an active and, I think, different role than we’ve had before.” She noted that currently more than half the internet’s content is in English and that women typically receive access to smartphones later than men.

Looking ahead, Schmidt offered one prediction regarding the future of the internet, namely that “the internet will disappear”. He predicted that the growth of smart devices and the internet of things will eliminate the barrier between being online and offline in the years ahead.

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Digitally shaping a greener world

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For the first time, Burhans is setting out to digitally map the land assets of one of the world’s largest land-owners. Photo by UN Environment Programme

Women were not allowed on map-making ship voyages until the 1960s—it was believed that they would bring bad luck. Spanish nuns made maps in the 10th century.

The first A-Z street map of London was created after one woman got lost on her way home from a party, then woke up every day at 5 a.m. to chart the city’s 23,000 streets.

As it turns out, women have always contributed to the drawing of maps despite hurdles.

This puts Molly Burhans, founder of GoodLands, in good company. For the first time in history, she is setting out to digitally map the land assets of one of the world’s largest land-owners—the Catholic Church. 

The journey has been spiritual. Instead of becoming a nun, she decided to pursue digital mapping instead. “Our work is grounded in science, driven by design and inspired by values of stewardship and charity,” she explains.

Unchartered waters

It all started when a course in biological illustration turned into a fascination with how everything fits together. 

“You can’t do surgery unless you’ve studied human anatomy—and you can’t really do sound environmental work unless you’ve mapped the environment and landscape, and can visualize it,” she explains.

She was introduced to digital mapping by Dana Tomlin, the originator or Map Algebra and Geographic Information Systems professor at the University of Pennsylvania and Yale University. When she visited the Vatican in 2016, it got her thinking.

“The Vatican has the most fantastic maps I’ve ever seen,” she said. “White, gold, platinum frescoes flanked the doors. I thought they must have the most incredible land datasets anywhere in the world.”

The Vatican is the smallest state in the world, and its biggest land owner. There are 250,000 Catholic-affiliated parishes, orphanages, community centers and retreat monasteries around the world, reaching an estimated 57.6 million people globally.

It is also the world’s largest non-government health care provider. The Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Health Care workers estimates that around 26 per cent of healthcare facilities are operated by the Roman Catholic Church.

Iyad Abumoghli, Principal Coordinator of UN Environment Programme’s Faith for Earth Initiative, said:

“Globally, faith-based organizations own 8 per cent of habitable land on the surface of the earth and 5 per cent of all commercial forests. There are around 37 million churches and 3.6 million mosques around the world.

“Burhans’ work supports UNEP’s Faith for Earth Initiative to harness the socio-economic power of faith-based organizations, where preaching meets practice.

“Mapping faith-owned assets will contribute to strategically employ faith values in managing them, ultimately leading to fighting climate change and curbing ecosystem degradation.”

Fear of the unknown

Burhans reflects: “Why not leverage this network for environmental good?”

But then the hurdle hit. The data wasn’t digital. In fact—it wasn’t even there. 

“None of the land had been digitally mapped. I was surprised – this was bigger than I’d realized. We can’t manage property without foundational data—never mind ecosystem restoration. So, I just kept going to find the data.”

When she confirmed that data did not exist, Burhans asked the Holy See for permission to create the first comprehensive global digital data map of the Catholic Church’s footprint and people in history, working with a large team at mapping software company Esri, as Chief Cartographer.

Her mission: to help faith-based communities, such as religious orders, dioceses, and the Vatican to first understand what land assets they own. Next, figure out how to leverage those assets for ecosystem restoration on a scale parallel to its massive global health network.

The power of knowing

For Burhans, maps represent the power to shape our world for better health and environmental protection. “We dare to use land for environmental good. I can’t emphasize how important our surroundings and environment are,” she notes.

“Maps are just the tool, allowing us to capture complex information, from biodiversity to soil type, all in one place. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a map is worth a million.”

“We can map where ecological failure might trigger heavy migration. Or, where sea level rise might force poor communities to move. We can see where more trees could cool hot cities; where green spaces could bring health benefits in areas with high respiratory problems.”

For Burhans, the potential of a large data hub capturing all this information across the church’s land portfolio is exciting—and unprecedented. It also has implications for all land owners and governments around the world.

Her team maps environmental, social and financial factors of a property portfolio. Centralizing information in one digital hub across sectors—health care, education, relief—could save tens of millions each year, she reflects.

She is also asking bigger questions: “How will artificial intelligence transform our world? How can we leverage land and religion to become the solution to our crises? We must be at the forefront of these issues.”

Mapping the church’s global footprint

Honing big data for environmental restoration is part of Burhans’ vision. Some of this is technical: bringing the Catholic Church into the digital area: “With relevancy, with the right information to roll out safety.”

But the vision is also about people. “We want to help people realize that mapping assets is vital to manage them responsibly. We cannot help the church improve its footprint if we don’t know what is has.”

“We all have different talents and gifts. Mine lean towards creating new technology and applying it to make land work for the greater good. That’s my vocation: to make sure that’s done—and done with integrity.”

UN Environment

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Five New Technologies that Can Prevent Everything from Fraud to Future Financial Shocks

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A new white paper, The Next Generation of Data Sharing in Financial Services, from the World Economic Forum has identified new technologies that banks and other financial institutions can implement for privacy-protected data-sharing between institutions. This data-sharing will enable broad analysis, which can be used to identify industry-wide risks and could even prevent future financial shocks.

Beyond system-wide benefits, these newly identified technologies, coined “privacy-enhancing techniques” can also use improved data-sharing to prevent fraud, offer financial advice, and much more. Privacy-enhancing techniques lessen the tensions underlying data-sharing. Instead of threatening customer privacy, this new wave of technology not only protects it but also enhances industry collaboration.

These five technologies include:

While new and novel for use in financial services, these technologies have existed within laboratories for years and are now ready for use in the real world of banking and other financial services. If harnessed, these tools could usher in a new, more collaborative, era of the sector on matters related to risk and product development.

“With advancing privacy-enhancing technologies, financial services have the ability to work more closely together on a range of important challenges and opportunities, from combating illicit financial transactions to identifying material risk exposures across institutions, to developing more personalized financial advice and products,” says Matthew Blake, Head of Financial and Monetary System Initiatives, World Economic Forum. “Privacy-enhancing techniques open a range of possibilities for enhanced risk management and financial innovation with benefits for customers, regulators and financial institutions alike.”

These technologies, used separately or in conjunction, greatly reduce the risks associated with data sharing and have the potential to fundamentally redefine the dynamics of data sharing in financial services. Opportunities from these technologies include the ability to:

· Better detect and prevent fraudulent activity: Federated analysis could be used to create shared fraud detection and prevention models across institutions without sharing the personally sensitive information about specific customers

· Identify system-wide risks and prevent financial crises: Secure multi-party computation could be used to conduct aggregate analysis on financial institutions’ risk exposures without breaching their institutional competitive secrets, allowing for an advance warning on systemic risks and exposures such as those that led to the 2008 financial crisis

· Enable new forms of personalized digital advice: Leveraging differential privacy in the analysis of transactions across an institution’s customer base could enable sophisticated and specific “people like you” recommendations without exposing individual customers’ spending habits

· And more, as explored in The Next Generation of Data Sharing in Financial Services

One of the key learnings from the financial crisis was that system-wide risk exposures were not properly quantified and understood by enterprises as well as financial supervisors. This was partly due to inadequate management information systems that did a poor job of aggregating risk exposures across institutions as well as too narrow a focus by supervisors on the risk of individual financial firms rather than the interconnections between institutions and the broader system.

Competitive dynamics also played a part; it is perilous for a financial institution to make explicit its risk exposures because other actors may take advantage and profit from that level of transparency. Enter privacy-enhancing techniques, which make sharing granular information across institutions possible – allowing for transparency without unveiling too much, presenting new possibilities for collaboration between institutions, supervisors and customers.

“It is important to note that these technologies are not a magic wand. Using them requires financial institutions to address surrounding issues such as poor data quality, legal uncertainties and siloed data infrastructures,” says Bob Contri, Principal, Deloitte United States; Global Financial Services Industry Leader. “However, addressing these roadblocks and using privacy-enhancing techniques can propel the financial services industry into a new era of collaboration and value delivery.”

According to the World Economic Forum, financial services executives should take a concerted look at these new techniques and where they might best be deployed. Bringing these technologies into practice will require a degree of experimentation and technological expertise. Nonetheless, the benefits of widescale adoption are clear and speak to greater alignment and action among key stakeholders on issues of systemic importance.

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‘Digital divide’ will worsen inequalities, without better global cooperation

MD Staff

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Inequality will worsen unless the so-called “digital divide” – the gap between under-connected and highly digitalized countries – is not addressed, warns a new report released on Wednesday by the UN trade body, UNCTAD.

The first-ever Digital Economy Report outlines enormous potential gains from the increasingly inter-connected global economy, but calls for “concerted global efforts to spread the wealth potential to the many people who currently reap little benefit from it.

US and China pull ahead, Africa and Latin America trail behind

The United States and China create the vast majority of wealth in the digital economy, the study reveals, and the two countries account for 75% of all patents related to blockchain technologies, 50% of global spending on the “Internet of Things” (IoT), more than 75% of the cloud computing market, and as much as 90% per cent of the market capitalization value of the world’s 70 largest digital platform companies.

The rest of the world, particularly countries in Africa and Latin America, are trailing considerably behind, and this trajectory is likely to continue, further contributing to rising inequality, said UN Secretary-General António Guterres, in a foreword to the report.

“We must work to close the digital divide” he writes, “where more than half the world has limited, or no access to the Internet. Inclusivity is essential to building a digital economy that delivers for all”.

Massive increase in data on the horizon

Despite the impact that digital data has already had, the world is still in the early days of the data-driven economy, according to the study, which forecasts a dramatic surge in data traffic in the next few years.

This reflects the growth in the number of people using the Internet, and the uptake of frontier technologies such as blockchain, data analytics, artificial intelligence, 3D printing, IoT, automation, robotics and cloud computing.

Platforms to rule the world

Wealth and power in the digital sphere are increasingly being held by a small number of so-called “super platforms”, comprising the seven global brands Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, Google, Facebook, Tencent and Alibaba.

Between them, these companies account for two-thirds of the total market value of the top 70 platforms: in China, WeChat, owned by Tencent, and AliPay, an Alibaba company, have captured virtually the entire Chinese mobile payment market between them. Google accounts for some 90 per cent of the global Internet search market, and Facebook is the top social media platform in more than 90 per cent of countries.

The reports shows that these companies are competing aggressively to stay on top, acquiring competitors, expanding into new services, lobbying policy-makers, and establishing strategic partnerships with leading multinationals in traditional sectors.

UNCTAD warns that the dominance of these platforms is leading to a concentration and consolidation of digital value, rather than reducing inequalities between and within countries, with developing countries at the bottom of the pile. The report calls for a rethink, that will bring about a fairer distribution of the gains from the digital economy.

The role of government in levelling the playing field

Governments can play a critical role in defining the rules of the game, explains Mukhisa Kituyi, Secretary-General of UNCTAD , by adapting existing laws, and passing new ones in many areas:

“A smart embrace of new technologies, enhanced partnerships and greater intellectual leadership are needed to redefine digital development strategies and the future contours of globalization”, he wrote.  

The report calls for greater international collaboration on issues associated with the digital economy, with the full involvement of developing countries, on issues such as competition, taxation, cross-border data flows, intellectual property, trade and employment policies.

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