When it comes to data for the SDGs, money and agreement are still lacking

TReNDS expert members at an exclusive roundtable discussion on governing the data revolution. Screengrab from SDSN TReNDS.

CANBERRA — With just 10 years left to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, more than 50 indicators remain undefined, with data missing to identify the progress against these goals. In addition, there is still a “staggering number” of individuals in the world still uncounted according to Alyson Marks, communications manager at the Sustainable Development Solutions Network's Thematic Research Network on Data and Statistics.

According to experts, it is the basics of data collection that is holding up the “revolution” for many nations that need better data for decision-making — including agreement on data standards, building a government structure that uses data effectively, and funding.

“There is still a substantial financing gap for data and statistics for ensuring that governments have the resources to establish and maintain essential principles of good statistics.”

— Alyson Marks, communications manager, SDSN TReNDS

Insights from a roundtable discussion hosted by SDSN TReNDS, to be released publicly on Tuesday, identify how governments need to change to support the creation and maintenance of the data required to achieve the SDGs. These were debated by leaders in the data and statistics sectors, including Shaida Badiee, managing director of Open Data Watch, Samantha Custer, director of policy analysis at AidData and Tom Orrell, managing director of DataReady.

The role of traditional versus new data collection methods, policy and regulatory needs for data governance, and what a national data ecosystem should look like were among the topics debated. The learnings from the roundtable, along with the report “Counting on the World to Act,” will provide analysis and evidence-based solutions for government actors to take the much-needed steps toward achieving the data revolution.

In releasing these insights, Marks said that SDSN TReNDS hopes it “spurs government actors and partners to shift their focus towards building robust, inclusive, and innovative national data systems to support the curation and promotion of better data for sustainable development.”

The role of traditional and new data methods

Traditional data collection methods include household surveys, such as a national census. New methods include analysis of big and satellite or geo-enabled data to model data insights. But the role each plays can be confusing. Where gaps currently exist in national data systems, the easy answer can be to use new technology to model data. Marks said that while new methods can be perceived as a “silver bullet” to replace official statistics as they can be cheaper and easier, traditional methods play an important role in creating a baseline of information trusted by the general public.

“We don’t want to downplay the incredible value that new methods offer, particularly Earth observations, but it is critical that national statistical office staff receive robust training on the technical components to ensure both the quality and accuracy of data,” she said. “Without technical training on new methods, it can be especially problematic because many national statistical offices are unfunded and under-resourced. Moreover, there also needs to be quality assurance measures particularly on emerging new methods, such as citizen-generated data.”

At the roundtable, Lisa Bersales, professor of statistics at the University of the Philippines, argued that core surveys should be identified by governments which maintain traditional data collection methods that build a trustworthy base. New data methods can then be used to fill gaps or add value — including identifying the quality of water near populations, Tom Moultrie, professor of demography at the University of Cape Town, suggested.

National statistical offices

How data is collected and used within government systems is important in creating a data revolution globally to help deliver on the SDGs. National statistical offices are a critical source of national and subnational data, providing independent data to governments. But their mandate has evolved significantly over the past few years, and they are no longer just data producers — they are coordinators for government, civil society, and the private sector to broker new partnerships that help produce official statistics.

For Badiee, this is why NSOs’ role needs to be “at the center of the data ecosystem” — but for many countries, changes still need to be made to benefit from this ecosystem. This includes creating a greater connection with the policy agencies that can turn data into action. And the role of the chief data officer can bridge the gap and make better use of data for decision-making, Custer believes.

“By appointing a national data coordinator, or chief data officer within NSOs, they can help mobilize political capital and attract more resources, encourage third-party partnerships, coordinate data sharing across government departments and ensure greater interoperability, promote open data standards, and encourage novel applications of existing government data,” Marks explained.

With any significant government structural change, Marks said, come challenges and high transaction costs. But case studies have shown impact.

In 2013, the Philippines centralized the processing and publishing of official data and statistics under one official authority, the Philippine Statistics Authority. The results have seen improved timeliness of data, open data sources, and innovation in household surveys and censuses to enable geotagging and geospatial analytics — as well as significant cost savings estimated to be $6.09 billion over five years.

Standards and open systems

The policy and regulatory frameworks needed were also discussed, identifying challenges that have long existed and are yet to be resolved at a scale that can support global initiatives such as the SDGs.

Common principles, standards, and policy frameworks to ensure data comparability and the capacity to integrate data from different sources; supportive systems and environments for collaboration; open systems; data protection and sustainable funding were among the challenges identified.

“One of the reasons we are still having these discussions is because there is still a substantial financing gap for data and statistics for ensuring that governments have the resources to establish and maintain essential principles of good statistics, including the right standards and policies around data,” Marks said. “Governments and partners need to focus on sectoral funding rather than piecemeal approaches to ensure that these standards and systems are better implemented.”

But there is still a lack of consensus among data custodians on data definitions — including within the disaster management sector — and the legal principles around data sharing and governance in many countries remain unclear.

“While there has been some progress over the past several years, including legislation governing access to information, new movements and organizations around open data, and increased calls for publicly produced data to be made freely available, more is required,” Marks said.

About the author

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    Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Devex 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 news.com.au. 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.