Executive Summary

Eradicating poverty and hunger, ensuring quality education, instituting affordable and clean energy, and more – the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) lay out a broad, ambitious vision for our world. But there is one common denominator that cuts across this agenda: data. Without timely, relevant, and disaggregated data, policymakers and their development partners will be unprepared to turn their promises into reality for communities worldwide. With only eleven years left to meet the goals, it is imperative that we focus on building robust, inclusive, and relevant national data systems to support the curation and promotion of better data for sustainable development, focusing on:

“Poverty and basic health data, such as that relating to child stunting, is often five or more years out of date, while birth registration is often even older. Administrative data like what children are learning, whether hospitals have enough medicine and whether people have access to transport are grossly underfunded in many parts of the world – if funded at all.” (SDSN TReNDS 2017)

These actions respond to the key challenges laid out in the 2017 report of the Sustainable Development Solutions’ Thematic Research Network on Data and Statistics (SDSN TReNDS), Counting on the World, such as acute capacity gaps, lack of political leadership, and inadequate financing. The problems are well known and, fortunately, there are some signs of progress. In particular, the growing evidence base in the use of satellite imagery and earth observation data that is being used to augment traditional statistical methods. Nevertheless, persistent data gaps and lags remain the reality in many countries. Countries in Africa and Asia, on average, have data available to monitor a mere 20% of SDG indicators (United Nations 2018)[1].

The 2017 report details how collaboration among a broad set of actors must occur across all stages of the data process – from collection and cleaning through dissemination and analysis – and how catalyzing this collaboration requires an array of innovative institutional arrangements, roles and responsibilities, and incentives. But with limited progress two years on – for example, with 50-plus of the SDG indicators still undefined – it is time to revisit these recommendations, focusing on the central agents of change: governments (Inter-agency and Expert Group on Sustainable Development Goal Indicators 2019).

In this report, TReNDS details an action plan for governments and their development partners that will enable them to help deliver the SDGs globally by 2030. Our recommendations specifically aim to empower government actors – whether they be national statisticians, chief data scientists, chief data officers, ministers of planning, or others concerned with evidence in support of sustainable development – to advocate for, build, and lead a new data ecosystem. These recommendations draw inspiration from best practices and notable examples from the Philippines, Bangladesh, Colombia, and other regions. These country examples, in particular, illustrate the power of governments to make big changes under significant resource constraints.

We highlight four priorities of an innovative and inclusive national data system that will help world leaders to take stock of progress, but also make real-time course corrections – redirecting services and investments in response to acute needs – and forward-looking projections. Essential to this latter imperative is that intra-national datasets can be compatibly integrated as parts of planetary-scale evaluations.

First, we need a strong system of data governance, with an empowered national chief statistician working across government to ensure a supportive policy and regulatory framework for new data practices. The chief statistician should foster collaborations that produce higher-frequency and better-quality data, promote greater openness and availability of data, and advocate for effective cross-governmental data systems to improve national efficiency.

To facilitate this change, countries should review their legal frameworks or statistical legislation to fully integrate the use of new and non-traditional data sources in the official statistical system, as well as redefine or expand the role and mandate of the chief statistician. Countries may also consider appointing an additional data coordinator, such as a chief data officer (as in France), who can support the chief statistician and help to advocate for data innovation across government. Such appointments can also spur progress at the subnational and international levels. Buy-in from city officials is critical to ensuring data is sufficiently disaggregated to support front-line service delivery.

Crucially important is a supportive international policy environment that encourages governments to partner with new actors and try innovative approaches. Chief statisticians, in their capacity as members of the UN Statistical Commission (UNSC), should push for the UNSC to extend its role and become a more inclusive international platform for data sharing and coordination. The UNSC needs to engage beyond the “usual suspects” and build trust and common cause among official and unofficial data providers, specifically around data gaps and capacity challenges. Governments should also call for the UNSC to take on a broader mandate, providing guidance and setting standards on data across the entire data and statistical system, including facilitating data sharing with non-governmental partners.

A clear legal and policy scaffolding or framework is also critical for strengthening stakeholder trust and creating an enabling environment that encourages data sharing and interoperability. For example, in the context of natural disasters, the lack of agreed hazard terminology is a prime example of a policy standards issue; governments and private entities, such as insurance companies, are struggling to collate, report, and share information on hazards as per their commitments under the SDGs, Paris Climate Agreement, and Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction. Where such confusion exists, governments and the UN should bring together epistemic communities to agree upon clear national, regional, or global terminology and data collection standards (such as the Hazard Terminology and Classification Review, co-facilitated by the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction and the International Science Council). As another approach, open data policies can help to foster collaboration and trust. Counting on the World to Act discusses the power and potential of the ”open by default” movement, as well as the legal, commercial, and privacy issues that ought to be considered when deciding how to make data public. Another way to encourage collaboration between public and private entities within a secure operating framework (particularly where open by default policies are not necessarily appropriate) is for governments to establish responsible data usage guidelines, threat assessments, impact assessments, trusted user frameworks, data protection acts, and data sharing agreements.

A supportive policy environment is essential to realizing the ambition of an open, innovation-oriented system. TReNDS’ vision is a user-centric system that actively supports public and private data users and encourages collaboration at the local, national, and international levels. Such a system should enable access to new technologies and the uptake of new data sources (e.g. from private partners, academic sources, and citizens), as well as the development of new technical capacities. To this end, we endorse and encourage the adoption of the UN Environment Programme’s proposed digital ecosystem framework, which would incentivize and support private actors in sharing information and using advanced technologies to provide better access to data. Additionally, we recommend the establishment of good practice coalitions and platforms – such as POPGRID, another consortium to which TReNDS contributes – to make international data sources, methods, and innovations more standardized and accessible across countries.

Finally, but crucially, all of these actions and opportunities depend on the availability of adequate financing. As documented by PARIS21, the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, Open Data Watch, and others, there exists a substantial financing gap for data and statistics. The full report highlights three ways in which governments and their development partners can mobilize the financial resources needed to close this shortfall. First, in advocating for domestic and international financing we need a common message highlighting the returns on investing in these data. One example: The joint NASA/US Geological Survey Landsat program, which operates satellites that provide Earth observation data, has enabled discoveries and interventions across science and health and provided an estimated worldwide economic benefit as high as US$2.19 billion a year as of 2011 (Espey 2018a). Second, we call for the High-level Group for Partnership, Coordination, and Capacity-Building for Statistics for the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development to establish clear, quantifiable goals for governments and their development partners that motivate investment in data and track resource mobilization to fill key data gaps and build statistical capacity at local and national levels. We also support the High-level Group’s efforts to develop a practical implementation framework for the Cape Town Global Action Plan and the Dubai Declaration. Third, we call for governments and their partners to improve the efficiency of financing for data by agreeing to common operating principles, such as aligning with the National Strategies for the Development of Statistics and focusing on sectoral funding rather than piecemeal approaches. They should also consider a coordinated donor platform for statistics to better align resources and ensure no country or region is left behind. The Bern Network on Financing Data for Development should play an important role, helping to mobilize donor support for such a platform and to identify the best institutional mechanisms and practices.

Four years have already elapsed since world leaders committed to achieve the SDGs in their countries by 2030. Only eleven years remain. Now is the time for action, not theorizing. This TReNDS report provides concrete and pragmatic recommendations that aim to identify, replicate, and scale success stories from around the world. Governments are in the driver’s seat, determining the direction and speed, but they will need a substantial and diverse coalition of partners to achieve the systemic change that a modern data ecosystem demands. TReNDS is one such coalition of technical partners standing by to help.

  1. Only 35% of sub-Saharan African countries (16 out of 46) have poverty data collected since 2015 (World Bank 2019). Meanwhile, policymakers struggle to accurately track the estimated 25.4 million refugees missing from national statistics worldwide, or to reliably monitor shoreline change to curb erosion rates within 24% of the world’s sandy beaches (UN High Commissioner for Refugees 2017; Luijendijk et al. 2018). ↩︎

Counting on the World to Act Next