Natascha Wagner en Jeroen Smits kijken ver weg
Natascha Wagner en Jeroen Smits kijken ver weg

Global Data Lab is ready for the future

“A pearl,” Jeroen Smits calls it. “A hidden treasure,” says new director Natascha Wagner. Global Data Lab (GDL) occupies a unique position in researching developing countries. The lab’s survival and expansion are now guaranteed thanks to a financial boost from the faculty.

The Global Data Lab (GDL) is an independent data and research centre of the Nijmegen School of Management. The lab has data from hundreds of household surveys concerning almost every developing country. Using it, the GDL conducts research on issues including poverty, educational participation and gender inequality. The lab also develops tools for measuring and analysing social progress. Researchers from around the world use these instruments.

Jeroen Smits, Professor of Economic and Human Development, started the lab while working on his PhD in the 1990s and saw how many unused data files on developing countries were in archives. “I thought: if we bring all these files together, we can do comparative research more easily. Then, we can better understand what is happening in developing countries and help solve the problems there. It could make the world a little better.”

A tremendous success

From the outset of the century, Smits has been building an infrastructure to deploy the data files. Since then, the lab has grown tremendously. It now contains data on over 35 million people from almost all developing countries. That data comes from large household surveys by UNICEF and USAID, among others. Smits: “We are constantly importing and standardising new data files and adding them to our central database. On this basis, we can conduct research on poverty, infant mortality and female labour force participation, for example.”

But Smits and his colleagues go a step further. Many development indicators are only available at the national level. But those who study educational participation in Tanzania, for example, find all kinds of regional differences. “That’s why we started creating indicators at the sub-national level, which we make available for free online. This has been a tremendous success: last year, our website received over 200,000 visitors, and that number is still rising. We also offer a sub-national version of the UN Human Development Index. That’s also very popular.”

Gezamenlijk portret Natascha Wagner en Jeroen Smits

Fascinated by data

Recognising the value of the Global Data Lab, the university has decided to put money into it. Smits: “They see it as a gem that occupies a unique position in the world.” The financial boost meant more staff could be hired. Moreover, Smits was able to hand over the leadership to a new director: Professor of International Economics Natascha Wagner.

She says she is fascinated by data. “As a researcher, I have always collected lots of data and am very aware of its power. Data will only become more important. Take the fake news phenomenon. You can use different sources and have different views, but a good discussion is fact-based. I see an important mission and role for the GDL and the university as a whole here: to participate in societal discourse and show the power of data. And we should show what the limits are sometimes, for example that we need more data.”

Wagner is looking forward to taking the next step with the GDL. But what does this step look like? “The lab was a big one-person project, but the future is team science. I’m delighted that the university has discovered what a hidden treasure the GDL is and that we’ve been able to establish a team now, with a professional web developer, several data scientists and researchers, and we now have a new, user-friendly website. Together, we can polish that treasure and gather even more information and conduct more research.”

Natascha Wagner portret

Exercising influence

In the future, Wagner plans to link GDL data to even more sources, including CBS, Google and Facebook, to analyse political shifts, for example. “I also see a lot of potential for the GDL to be used in secondary schools. Then students can have fact-based discussions on questions like: why do so many people flee from conflicts and what is the situation in the countries they come from?” Finally, Wagner would like to give the data, which mainly comes from developing countries, back to those countries. “So people there can have fact-based influence on policymakers. We can do a lot more in those regards as the GDL.”

Smits is happy to leave these kinds of management tasks to Wagner and limits himself to his research projects. “I retired last year, but doing research is still a hobby. Now, for example, I’m involved in the development of a Climate Vulnerability Monitor. It should show how vulnerable developing countries are to climate change and the social factors involved. I’m also working on a manual for the database so that all the knowledge that is currently in my head will be available to all GDL staff. That makes it worth the effort for me.”

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Text: Machiel van Zanten

Photos: Duncan de Fey