Chapter 1 Introduction: Taking Stock of Progress

Introduction: Taking Stock of Progress icon

In 2017 the Sustainable Development Solutions Network’s Thematic Research Network on Data and Statistics (SDSN TReNDS or TReNDS), released a report, Counting on the World, that set out a vision for evolved national and global statistical systems. These systems would integrate data from across the whole of government, as well as from non-governmental actors and businesses, to help national statistics offices cope with the rising demand for data and capitalize on new technologies and approaches.

TReNDS laid out four pathways to build new data ecosystems for sustainable development, relating to governance, principles and standards, innovation, and financing. The pathways corresponded to and built upon the areas of action identified in the report of the UN Secretary-General’s Independent Expert Advisory Group on a Data Revolution for Sustainable Development (IEAG), A World That Counts, as well as the recommendations laid out in the Cape Town Global Action Plan (CTGAP) (IEAG 2014; UNSD 2017a). In this report we reexamine these pathways, reflecting upon the past two years of progress and setbacks, and refine our recommendations based on what is working in different countries around the world and the actors that can affect the greatest change: governments. Strong, government-led data ecosystems will help to improve service delivery and ensure greater protection of individuals’ information and privacy. Intra- and inter-government collaboration will also improve, and Sustainable Development Goal (SDG)-related, evidence-informed decisions and results reporting will increase.

Fortunately, we are making some progress. In the last few years the coverage of census data has increased dramatically, catalyzed by computer-assisted methods and other technological innovations. This means we now have a much better handle on exactly how many people live in each country and their precise location, thereby helping to better target government services and interventions. Furthermore, the expanding use of satellite imagery is helping to augment traditional survey methods, giving us robust interim estimates on population movement and change. And statisticians and policy makers have joined together in response to the call to “leave no one behind” – for example, establishing new standards for the measurement of aging through a new expert “City Group” (UNSD n.d.).

There is also growing consensus among national statisticians, data scientists, academics, and private sector representatives on the required direction of travel: the need to innovate, to work in partnership, and to look to non-official sources of data to supplement official statistics. This was particularly evident at the two World Data Forums convened in January 2017 in Cape Town, South Africa and October 2018 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. At these events, and in their subsequent outcome documents, representatives from the UN system, from national governments, from private companies, academia, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and citizen groups committed to “take decisive actions to transform how data and statistics are produced and disseminated to inform development policy decision, with the vital support of governments and in closer partnership with stakeholders from academia, civil society, the private sector, and the public at large” (UNSD 2017a).

Nevertheless, challenges remain (as highlighted by the limited progress detailed in Annex 1). A 2018 UN survey found that in Africa and Asia, on average, data for only 20% of SDG indicators is currently available, and the World Bank has found only 35% of the African continent has poverty data collected since 2015 (UN 2018; World Bank 2019). Furthermore, there are huge numbers of people who still go uncounted; such as the 25.4 million refugees in the world who are missing from national statistics (UNHCR 2017). Our knowledge of the environment is also limited; for example, there is still no reliable, global-scale assessment of historical shoreline change, in spite of evidence to suggest that 24% of the world’s sandy beaches are eroding at rates exceeding 0.5 meters per year (Luijendijk et al. 2018). Furthermore, critical institutions are not resourced to cope with rising data demands. Recent estimates from the Partnership in Statistics for Development in the 21st Century (PARIS21) consortium and the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), building on a 2015 estimate from SDSN and partners, suggest a shortfall of US$700 million per annum in national statistical systems, resulting in acute data gaps, data publication delays, insufficient data disaggregation, and more (Calleja and Rogerson 2019).

To improve the quality of data and information for decision-making worldwide, we need to reach consensus on what works and – equally important – what does not. We need to highlight positive success stories, and we need to make a compelling case for investing in data – e.g. showcasing the life-saving potential of innovative health tracking systems in Bangladeshi slums, and the US$2 billion global economic benefit of the US government launching and investing in the Landsat earth observation program (Dahmm 2018a; Espey 2018a). Such examples need to be used in a coordinated, strategic effort to win the attention and investment of international and domestic financiers thereby meeting the US$700 million per annum shortfall.

This report lays out current challenges relating to governance, laws and standards, uptake of innovation, and financing, and then seeks to provide practical strategies to overcome them, including by highlighting successful country and city-level practices. It updates the recommendations made in TReNDS’ 2017 report, Counting on the World, following evaluation of their feasibility and uptake in the intervening years. It lays out an action plan for governments, specifically, to kick-start the kind of systemic change that we need. We only have eleven years left to meet the ambitious SDGs so there is no more time for theorizing. We have to identify what works and rapidly scale it, moving from piecemeal approaches to transformative change.

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