New forums, opportunities push inclusion of science, data in SDGs

Rohit Ramchandani explains the health center impact assessment data collection form to health workers at the  Kagoro Rural Health Centre in Eastern Province, Zambia. Photo by: Fison Mujenja / CC BY-SA

Nearly a year after world leaders adopted the broad-reaching Sustainable Development Goals, leading scientists, innovators and civil society actors are turning their attention to the first phase of how to achieve them. A key starting point is the question of how to measure the SDGs most effectively on local, national and global levels.

Simple advances such as better data collection, could offer headway on the complex tasks of eliminating poverty and reducing inequality throughout the world. A number of new international partnerships, data initiatives and funding opportunities are establishing a connection between science, technology and innovation and the SDGs, which many in those fields say is essential for progress.  

A new “SDG Index and Database” launched last week by the New York-based Sustainable Development Solutions Network and the German nonprofit Bertelsmann Foundation, marks the first global effort to track the goals at the country level. The index creates a template, using available data on measuring countries’ initial status on reaching the 17 goals. The Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liberia and Central African Republic are so far the worst performing nations, Sweden, Denmark and Norway have made the most initial progress, according to the index.

But measuring progress on the global goals is a challenging task.

All of the global goals are “extremely complicated,” said Bill Colglazier, the former science and technology adviser to the U.S. Secretary of State, noting they are also general, sometimes lacking strong, specific indicators to measure progress.

200 SDG indicators

The U.N. Secretariat and the Interagency Expert Group of Sustainable Development Goal Indicators released a draft document outlining more than 200 indicators that shows how only a portion of the working measures for progress are “conceptually clear,” with “established methodology and standards available.” While a final version will be released officially this fall, the current document reveals some flawed indicators, including measuring the proportion of agricultural area under “productive and sustainable agriculture” to evaluate the target of ensuring “sustainable food production systems.”

“In some cases there is no accepted methodology for collecting the data and there is supposed to be one indicator for each of the targets,” Colglazier said. “If there is not very well defined data it is not going to be a useful indictor. There is a lot of work to be done in many areas.”

Colglazier recently took on a new role as the co-chair of a 10-member group, United Nations group appointed by the U.N. secretary-general, to support the “Technology Facilitation Mechanism” of the global goals Colglazier and his colleagues, a mix of social and natural science experts from the public and private sector, are now charged with providing advice on how to achieve the global goals.

The group, which will convene regularly, met at a high-level, U.N. forum on science, technology and innovation and the global goals last month — an event that will now take place each June. The U.N. meeting, the first with that specific focus, established the need for better data collection and stronger national partnerships with private actors and civil society.

Colglazier’s group has set strengthening science, technology and innovation capabilities in every country and developing national and international action plans and roadmaps as key priorities. The private sector is expected to play a large role in building science technology and innovation capacity, as the largest investments in “developing and deploying technologies” now come from — and are expected to continue to emerge from — this sector, according to a policy note drafted by the 10-member team.

Many high-income countries report “disengagement” from research in this area of science, technology and innovation and development over the last several years, according to a recent UNESCO report. Meanwhile, spending on these areas has grown in a number of lower-income countries, including several in East Africa.

The formation of the new 10-person expert team could lead to a call for a “transformative shift to collaboration rather than competition” across borders, according to Heide Hackmann, the co-chair of the 10-person group who also serves as the executive director for the International Council for Science.

Working together

Countries will likely always still be competitive with one another in their science R&D, but tackling international issues such as cross-border health epidemics and climate change will require governments to work together, Colglazier says.

The incorporation of science, technology and innovation into the work of the global goals would also ideally translate into more targeted data collection that captures marginalized populations. Women and indigenous communities, for example, are among the large demographics that are less likely to be represented in household surveys. This exclusion occurs for a variety of reasons, stemming from the isolation of indigenous communities, to high rates of illiteracy among women in some low-income countries.

The result is inaccurate data that fails to fully capture a complete picture of how a nation stands on its maternal mortality rate, access to primary education, or clean drinking water, said Myrna Cunningham, an indigenous rights activist from Nicaragua.

As the United Nations’ Office of Innovation and Communications Technology now works towards developing a “complete toolkit” for governments, it also is working with countries to “embrace data and data analytics,” said Lambert Hogenhout, chief of analytics, partnerships and innovation at the office.

Challenges to embracing data

The hurdles for incorporating data analytics into development analysis, funding and social programming activities extend from technical to economic limitations.

“The challenge is mostly in terms of adopting the opportunities. These mechanisms don’t have the nimbleness and the flexibility to respond to rapidly evolving environments and I think governments basically need to be open in terms of embracing these opportunities and not being afraid to fuse data and analytics,” Hogenhout said.

The data might also not always exist in workable forms.

Data collection is the main issue that nonprofit partners face, said Julie Whipple, who leads the global corporate social responsibility program at Qlik, a U.S.-based global data visualization company that partners with nearly 250 nonprofit organizations across the world, working pro bono to collect and process their information. Qlik can work with and help process basic data when it is collected on a spreadsheet. Sometimes, though, this data will have been sitting on spreadsheets for years untouched — or the information on the number of members reached in a given community might not have even made it past a sheet of paper.

“Many NGOs don’t even collect data or may not understand how valuable their information is,” Whipple said.

She spoke of a local medical organization operating in Tanzania that logged patient data in spreadsheets, untouched for more than five years.*

“You’re doing fundraisers and trying to gain supporters and all of that, and you have data sitting in spreadsheets and you can’t easily tell how many children were immunized, for example,” she said.

Sustainable development should be viewed through the lens of how a project is not just economically viable, but potentially profitable, said Akash Bhavsar, the managing director of SkyQuest Technology, a for-profit company that develops products and solutions to help achieve the global goals. Science is a natural fix to many of the problems he encounters in his work, like homes without electricity or safe cooking stoves.

“When we say let’s find a problem and solve it we create a community of problem-solvers and are trying to address seven out of the 17 SDGs,” he said. “Since the invention of the wheel, science has played a very important role in the development of humanity on this planet. So it is the SDGs that is a new concept for me, not [science, technology and innovation].”

While the formal link between science, technology, innovation and the global goals is relatively new in international policy and development circles, this connection is bound to become more intertwined as the goals, targets and indicators take on sharper focus and demand grows for accurate data.

*Update, August 17, 2016: This story has been updated to clarify the interviews with local medical organization in Tanzania.

With potential to change the trajectory of crises, such as famines or the spread of diseases, the innovative use of data will drive a new era for global development. Throughout this monthlong Data Driven discussion, Devex and partners will explore how the data revolution is changing our approach to achieving development outcomes and reshaping the future of our industry. Help us drive the conversation forward by tagging #DataDriven and @devex.

About the author

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the U.N. Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.