Opinion: Data's big moment? Here's what you need to know

By Claire Melamed, Mahamudu Bawumia 20 September 2017
An aid worker completes paperwork in Mopti, central Mali. Photo by: Anouk Delafortrie / EC / ECHO / CC BY-ND

Knowledge is power, and knowledge will empower humanity to tackle the most serious challenges of our time. We are all reliant on accurate knowledge to achieve the collective ambition of the Sustainable Development Goals, and the clock is ticking.

So let’s test your knowledge: A) Are boys or girls under 2 years old more likely to be stunted? B) Are slum-dwellers more likely to be young or old? C) What proportion of disabled people are unemployed? D) What proportion of migrants have birth certificates?

“Properly realizing the opportunities of the data revolution for sustainable development means a series of interconnected changes.”

— Claire Melamed, executive director, Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data

Answer — no one knows.

Data is the story of people’s lives in numbers. Data allows researchers, campaigners, and policymakers to understand how societies work, who gains, and who loses from changes and crises. If you’re not in the data, you’re not in the picture — and too many people are still uncounted. There’s a huge need for concerted efforts to uncover the realities of life for the “left behind” in 2017, and a coalition of partners have been working to disaggregate data on gender, race, age, disabilities, migratory status, and more.

But data has a PR problem. Much as it used to be fine to say “I hate mathematics,” today we all encounter people who think numbers are a distraction from the real business of helping people. But we cannot turn our backs on the greatest renewable resource of our time — the resource that will inform and guide humanity to both define and solve our problems.

Data collaboration to enhance development

The Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data, launched at the 2015 U.N. General Assembly, is creating a blueprint to put data to work for the public good. In collaboration with more than 250 global partners, we support governments, including Colombia, Ghana, Senegal, Tanzania, Sierra Leone, and more, to mobilize the power of our network to help make better decisions, and ultimately better lives.

We also work with the institutions that have the data such as NASA and mobile phone companies, sharing satellite records or the data from the phone in your pocket. And with the companies and academics that have the technology and know how to use the data, and the civil society organizations that, together with government, put that data to work on behalf of the poorest people. We set up issues-based data collaboratives that are open to organizations from every sector, on areas such as the environment, “leave no one behind,” data interoperability, and more. These groups meet virtually and in person, and the outcomes of their work are showcased by leaders at regional high-level convenings where announcements of action, new policies, and funded programs of work are publicly made.

The lessons learned in data collation

Governments: if your data is poor, you will make poor decisions
by Mahamudu Bawumia, vice president of Ghana

Many governments do not prioritize data collection, and the political economy of that is simple: the resources invested in data collection may not be very obvious to the average citizen. But governments forget that without the data, you will get policies wrong. Data tells you where you are, and where you want to get to.

The U.N. General Assembly’s official side event, Data and Technology for Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, is a gathering of governments — from Colombia, Ghana, Kenya, and Sierra Leone — the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data, and GSMA, all united in the belief that investments in data and data collection are key to development that “leaves no one behind.”

Why bother? Why are we politicians not leaving this to our very capable statisticians and economists?

It’s because our collective future rests upon our success in achieving a robust data regime that is collectively supported by all partners, including private sector, academia, NGOs, CSOs, and global institutions.

If the data is poor, you are going to make poor decisions. If the data is good, you have a better chance to change people’s lives for the better. That is the simple message we wish to convey to our colleagues at the U.N. General Assembly this week.

What have we learned so far? First, getting results means investing in data. Direct investment in national statistical offices that are the guarantor of quality and independent data, will ensure that spending on health, education, agriculture, and every other sector will deliver positive results. The resources to establish national data infrastructures are not yet flowing — and without this, the promise of the data revolution will not become reality.

Second, providing better data to guide decisions cannot be solved only with money. Capacity, skills, relationships, political capital, digital inclusion, and advocacy are all integral components. Properly realizing the opportunities of the data revolution for sustainable development means a series of interconnected changes.

Achieving all of this requires a huge effort by public, private and civil society organizations to collectively focus on how to make the new world of data work for the poorest and those left behind.

This is why we focus on two things.

First, partnership, since this is an endeavor that by definition has to involve all sectors. All have something unique to contribute, without which the whole cannot be achieved.

Second, on politics: This is about what governments do, the commitments they make to their citizens, and how they function to carry out the will of the populations who chose them. Political commitments are vital to get the change we need — promises such as the proposed Charter on Data Disaggregation, announced at the 2017 U.N. General Assembly, to lock in commitments to ensure that data tells the truth about people’s lives. And with this truth, comes a better future for humanity.  

To learn more about the work the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data is doing in data for development, click here.