The Global Data Lab was established by Jeroen Smits, who during his PhD research in the 1990s discovered that there were many great datasets for low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) hidden in data archives around the world that, at the time, were not much used for systematic scientific research. Jeroen was intrigued by the richness of these datasets and started to analyze them for his research focused on social, demographic and societal challenges in LMICs. But he did not stop with the analysis of the existing datasets. He developed the dream to bring all these datasets together into one big database for comparative research studies covering the complete developing world. In 2003 he came a big step closer to the realization of his dream. He obtained a VIDI research grant from the Netherlands Scientific Organization (NWO), which offered him the possibility to construct such a unifying data infrastructure. With a small team of junior researchers, he developed the methods and programs to harmonize and combine household-level datasets into one big infrastructure, which was called the Database Developing World. Since then, the original Database Developing World has been extended continuously with new datasets and over time it has become one of the largest existing databases compiled on the basis of individual and household level data for LMICs. The database currently includes data on over 35 million individuals, derived from 500+ surveys conducted between 1990 and 2020 in 130+ countries.

The major contribution of the Global Data Lab is the free provision of LMIC information, not only at the national but also at the subnational level by aggregating the original household data and extrapolating based on the best possible available information. This aggregated data allows to study the role of national as well as subnational context and within country disparities. As subnational data was (and is) hardly available from other data providers, the Global Data Lab is a unique resource. The lab currently contains over 100 subnational indicators for 1400+ areas across the developing world.

When the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were established in 2014, there was a call for subnational indicators for monitoring and studying these goals not only at the national level but also within countries. As Global Data Lab we responded to this call for action and decided to make our subnational indicators freely available through our website.

The most successful of these indicators is a subnational version of the Human Development Index (HDI) of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), which we constructed in 2018. Making this Subnational Human Development Index and its underlying subindices and indicators available through our website led to a sharp increase in the number of visitors in 2021. Another broadly used indicator is our International Wealth Index (IWI), which measures the standard of living of households across the developing world on the basis of ownership of consumer durables, housing characteristics and access to basic services. Currently a comparable resilience index is constructed, the Climate Resilience Index, which makes it possible to assess the resilience of countries and subnational regions towards climate change around the globe.