Bar and line graphs. Photo by: Lukas / CC0

CANBERRA — The Data2X Press Fellowship brought together seven women journalists from France, Kenya, Pakistan, Spain, the United Kingdom, United States, and Australia to attend the United Nations World Data Forum in Dubai to learn more about data to support the Sustainable Development Goals — with a focus on gender.

The fellowship heard from a range of data and development experts, including Data2X, Open Data Watch, U.N. Statistics Division, and UN Women, on the challenges facing the collection and use of data in approaches and thinking.

In some countries, national statistics are over a decade old, during which time populations and circumstances change dramatically. And when there is data, it is not always disaggregated to identify groups that need to be better targeted.

Data2X was established in 2012 after former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton requested data on gender to support policy development — which didn’t exist in a useful form. This raised an important question: If data is not being collected with an eye toward gender, what else are we missing?

Women and girls are at a disadvantage and more likely to live in poverty. Disability, age, sexual orientation, religion, ethnicity, education, and geographic location are all among the contributing factors. While having specialized surveys fills some gaps, data disaggregation needs to be central to all data collection to ensure it is useful and usable in achieving the SDGs.

As a Data2X press fellow, this was an important learning opportunity. Here, I share some of my reflections.

Focusing on gender

In health, the gender focus is often on women of reproductive age, with gaps in knowledge for older and younger women. While data on violence is often disaggregated to support the growing number of gender-based violence programs, for instance, there is virtually no gender data within the agricultural sector.

Even within migration data, gender remains a challenge, said Marzia Rango, research officer at the International Organization for Migration. In spite of IOM’s new data portal, different definitions of data used within countries contribute to inconsistent and incomplete data.

Kimberly Roberson, senior durable solutions officer at the U.N. Refugee Agency, said challenges there were similar, with the need to build better standards to support quality over quantity.

“Refugees don’t come as lumps,” Roberson said. “They come as individuals.”

Challenges beyond data collection

Collecting data is part of the challenge in improving awareness of disadvantaged populations; justifying it to governments is another. Shaida Badiee, managing director at Open Data Watch explained to the fellowship group that five donors make up 75 percent of all official development assistance supporting the collection of statistics — and only 0.3 percent of ODA projects focus on data collection.

Initiatives are encouraging better financing — yet are not specifically linked to gender data. The U.K. Department for International Development has been reaching out to donors for more funding, Baidee said. The World Bank and U.N. have signed memorandums of understanding to support data collection for the SDGs. PARIS21 is undertaking a study on options for vertical financing to support data collection. And outcomes of the World Data Forum in Dubai include new funding approaches and opportunities.

“Just because data is there, that doesn’t mean it will be used,” IOM’s Rango said.

Achieving the SDGs requires dramatic policy changes within governments worldwide, using disaggregated data to identify the real challenges within individual countries and coming up with the appropriate solutions.

Time use surveys, for instance, are particularly beneficial to women. Some 88 countries already survey how women, and other disadvantaged groups, use their time — including unpaid care, work, volunteer work, household chores, and more. But Mayra Buvinic, a senior fellow at Data2X, said the information, while expensive to collect, remains deeply underutilized.

Claire Melamed, executive director of the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data, said that what needs to change in the data discussion is political will. The issue of data communication remains a challenge for creators, who are sometimes unable to translate niche terminology into language that can be understood by policymakers.

Sarah Lucas, program officer of global development and population at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation also suggested that policymakers and other key stakeholders can be brought to the table to determine the information needed to support policy.

Public support is also needed for governments to get behind new investments — data needs to be made effective and relatable.

Rajesh Mirchandani, chief communications officer at the U.N. Foundation, said that countering spurious statistics is an important challenge for the data world. New approaches to engaging key stakeholders through data can help, but data providers can also work together with communication specialists to support better outward engagement and improve data literacy.

“If we want to make sure everyone counts, we need to count everyone.”

— Rajesh Mirchandani, chief communications officer, U.N. Foundation

Data challenges mean achieving the SDGs is unlikely

Papa Seck, chief statistician at UN Women, told the fellowship group that achieving SDG 5 on gender equality by 2030 was “unlikely.” The key areas of work for the statistics arm includes improving coordination and data production, ensuring there are adequate indicators to support policy needs, and supporting countries to identify and close gaps.

The challenges, he explained, are cultural and institutional — getting national statistics offices to prioritize gender or other specialized areas when they do not have experts on staff makes it difficult. Seck said it is important to look beyond 2030 when it comes to the development goals.

Already he has seen a dramatic shift. He has seen new “data people” emerge along with funders and better linkages between data and policy.

The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation is one emerging funder for data — the foundation saw how data helped identify those disadvantaged to develop better solutions, Lucas explained. Awareness of the value of data is broadening.

The goals to aim for through data initiatives and programs were nicely summed up by U.N. Foundation’s Mirchandani: “If we want to make sure everyone counts, we need to count everyone.”

Update, November 8, 2018: This article was updated to correct that 0.3 percent of ODA projects focus on data collection.

About the author

  • Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Senior Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.