The Plume Air Report is an app that pulls data from a number of public sector organizations tracking weather and air quality, providing users with real-time information on pollution levels. How can open data be applied to help achieve the SDGs? Photo by: Plume Labs

The Sustainable Development Goals, ratified in September at the United Nations, set out a broad development agenda of 17 goals and 169 targets that bring together economic, social and environmental priorities.

The Open Data Institute sees the new agenda marking an important departure from the Millennium Development Goals, in that they recognize the importance of data. We urge all actors in governments, businesses and nongovernmental organizations to consider how you can use open data to help achieve the goals set by the U.N.

Data, including open data, will be a valuable tool not only to monitor the implementation of the SDGs, but to help make it possible to achieve them. Our research has demonstrated that open data can more effectively target aid money and improve development programs; track development progress and prevent corruption; and contribute to innovation, job creation and economic growth.

The ODI has consistently highlighted the value and disruptive impact of open data interventions through our work exploring the impact of open data across a range of sectors and issues, including agriculture and nutrition, open cities and global development.

Here are six ways open data applications are already helping to achieve the changes promoted by the SDGs:

Sustainable impact

The potential of open data can already be seen across many of the SDGs. The core goals remain focused on eliminating global hunger and poverty, as were given priority in the MDGs. However, goals surrounding nutrition, healthy lives, agriculture and safe access to water emphasize creating sustainable positive changes.  

Environmental sustainability

The prominence of environmental sustainability in the global discussions is reflected by the measures for protecting the planet included in five of the 17 goals. Open data is well placed to create impact in this sector.

Organizations such as Global Forest Watch show how only through collating multiple data sources can we ascertain the scale of a global issue such as deforestation. GFW helps the calls for further protection of rainforest ecosystems by visualizing the worldwide change in forest cover since 2001. It draws on data sets from across the spectrum, including data on conservation projects, the rights of indigenous peoples and forests themselves to give a comprehensive picture of changes to forest landscapes.

Their system is able to give near-real-time alerts for deforestation and also provides specialized app services for governments, private sector companies and NGOs concerned with deforestation.


Goal 2 aims to end hunger, achieve food security, improve nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture. Targets detail the aim to increase the productivity and income of “small-scale food producers.” This is an area in which open data is already having an impact: Data on environmental conditions are essential to farmers to maximize yields; meteorological agencies around the world can release weather data so farmers have access to accurate, real-time information about when is best to sow, irrigate, and harvest their crops.

By utilizing mobile phone technology, businesses such as aWhere are sharing the benefits of global weather data with small-scale and rural farmers. Their analysis and delivery methods ensure that farmers in remote locations have access to relevant information to make the right decisions for their crop. Data published openly will continue to make a positive impact in this sector, supported by international networks such as the Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition Partnership.


The explicit mention of cities and urban areas in the SDGs reflects the reality of changing global demographics. With a further 2.5 billion people living in urban areas by 2050, the impact of air quality on public health is set to become a significant issue (as is addressed by Goal 3.9). The startup Plume Labs has developed an app addressing this challenge by making complex open data user-friendly and accessible for people across the world.

Plume Labs is already helping individuals to minimize the impact of poor air quality on their health in cities from New Delhi to Bogota. The app uses data released by a number of public sector organizations tracking weather and air quality and applies Plume Lab’s own standardized “air quality index” which helps citizens make decisions on when to do activities such as cycling across the city or taking young children outside.

Transparency and accountability

Goals 16 and 17 look at the structure and development of our societies. The goals address issues of inequality by outlining specific areas to target: from eliminating gender disparities in education and ending all forms of violence against women, to implementing safe migration policies and increasing financial and political transparency.

In the area of transparency, tools which use open data are already having an impact on banks and politics. In addressing the need for improved regulation and monitoring of global financial markets and institutions (Goal 10.5), Map The Banks (an OpenCorporates project) aims to capture the massive amounts of data produced by the regulation of financial institutions every day in order to create a global picture of the finance sector. Bringing data into the open may be one of the most effective methods for increasing accountability by prompting further questions into international financial structures.

Overcoming challenges for success

The final formulation of the SDGs prove just how difficult it is to create a single set of goals for universal application. The SDGs are wide-ranging, varied and perhaps a little unwieldy. They will be applied across a range of contexts, from north to south, in rural and urban contexts.

As a valuable and versatile tool, open data is well-placed to provide solutions in diverse contexts and challenging environments: whether for farmers in sub-Saharan Africa, those monitoring changes to the Amazon rain forest, or city-dwellers in Guangzhou.

In order to fully realize the potential for openly published data to aid achieving these goals, the ODI urges policymakers to include open data in considering how to achieve the goals set by the U.N. Already, there are positive signs of global recognition of the importance of data. The ODI is a champion for the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data, which will work toward cementing the critical place of data as a tool for policy implementation and monitoring. The partnership aims to demonstrate the potential of data to enrich development, by highlighting data-driven solutions which will help achieve the SDGs.

The SDGs present a unique opportunity to reframe the discussion in international development. They provide a framework to show how open data to contribute to ending extreme poverty and solving many of the world’s most challenging environmental, economic and social problems.

To read additional content on innovation, go to Focus On: Innovation in partnership with Philips.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the authors

  • William Gerry

    William Gerry joined the Open Data Institute in August 2014, and works within the international services team — he manages the team’s projects, conducts research and provides general support. Will graduated with a degree in history from Oxford Brookes University in 2013, and then completed an M.St. in modern British and European history from St. Antony’s College, Oxford.
  • Kathryn Pritchard

    Kathryn Pritchard joined the Open Data Institute in July 2015 as an international services intern to support projects for ODI’s Services and Policy teams. She is entering her final year reading for a degree in philosophy, politics and economics at Balliol College, Oxford. Her study is increasingly focused on the modern history of developed and developing states. She joined the ODI to experience a team driving forward institutional change firsthand.