TEDxToronto 2019: Danielle Goldfarb, Head of Global Research at RIWI Corp.

Danielle’s work at RIWI, a global data collection and trend-tracking company, sees her using proprietary technology to track the opinions of marginalized voices that aren’t often polled or heard. With this RIWI technology, Danielle forecasts and tracks socio-economic behavior globally and has created the first and only real-time, global measure of young people and online-enabled work (like Uber driving etc.).

(To see Danielle live on the TEDxToronto stage on October 26th, purchase your tickets here.)

What was your first “million-dollar idea”?
I don’t think I have had a “million-dollar idea.” Some of my past research, however, is about the millions of dollars that should be included in our economic and trade data but is left out. This is mainly because we focus on physical things, and don’t measure intangibles or online activities well (e.g., online ‘gig’ work). We need to invest in new approaches to better measure the “missing” millions of dollars that are increasingly driving value in the global economy, rather than just collect data because we’ve always done it that way.

What’s the wildest idea you had to sell somebody on? How did you do it? 
The wildest data idea I have tried to advance, along with others, is that it is urgent for us to measure the part of the economy that’s not visible. Advancing this idea is a process, since many believe this to be a marginal aspect of the economy and have vested interests in the status quo research and data approaches. My approach—still in process—is to just go ahead and pilot these new approaches, politely ignore the skeptics, and then find those people who are open to them.

Name a big idea in your lifetime that you can’t believe never took off?
Carbon taxes. These have taken off in some places in small ways. They would be the most efficient way to change behaviour, yet we lack the will to implement them seriously.

Name one thing, as a society, we aren’t spending enough time thinking about? What would be a good first step?
The dramatic changes taking place in Africa and Asia today as people increasingly gain access to the Internet. We spend a lot of time thinking about how technology is a bad thing, and how we are addicted to it. But as the world moves increasingly online it is allowing many people who are newly online to gain access to global labour markets and move out of poverty. A good first step to appreciating these possibilities is to start to gather data and talk to people about their experiences in global labour markets, not just locally.

What’s the biggest challenge you face in your day-to-day work? How do you take it on?

The biggest challenge I face is that many people in government, business, and the research worlds are not open to new approaches to understanding the world, even if their existing approaches are out of line with how the world is changing. I mostly use two strategies to address this: 1) look for people who are willing to challenge their own assumptions 2) look for ways to make new approaches and technologies both relevant and easier to accept. (This is what many refer to as the California roll approach: the California roll was made with familiar U.S. ingredients to provide a gateway for Americans to start to try other kinds of sushi.)

Where do you look for inspiration?
I look for inspiration from leaders from diverse fields who challenge conventional wisdom with evidence. One book that has inspired me is Esther Duflo’s Poor Economics. In university, I learned that a one-size-fits-all approach could solve poverty, but Duflo provided hard evidence that a solution that works in one place does not necessarily work elsewhere, challenging the orthodoxy.

If you could achieve one goal in the next 18 months what would it be? And why?
Everyone is talking about the changing nature of work, yet we are flying blind without any data on what people’s experiences are globally or in Canada with the new forms of work the Internet makes available. So in 2019 we created and piloted the first global measure of the online ‘gig’ economy. My goal is modest but important: To understand how this measure is or isn’t changing. Is ‘gig’ work becoming mainstream (or not) and if so, what policies do we need to change in Canada and around the world?

(To see Danielle live on the TEDxToronto stage on October 26th, purchase your tickets here.)

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