A Data Revolution in Motion

On 6 July 2017, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a global indicator framework to monitor the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development as a voluntary and country-led endeavour. The 232 global indicators are complemented by indicators at the regional and national levels developed by United Nations Member States. Data from national statistical and data systems are the basis for the compilation of global indicators.

Such systems around the world have been the source of many important initiatives to develop new tools and frameworks to integrate new data sources, with the aim of fully harnessing the power of the data revolution and achieving the Goals and targets of the 2030 Agenda. These efforts are especially important in identifying those left furthest behind, since data are increasingly disaggregated by income, sex, age, race, ethnicity, migratory status, disability, geographic location and other characteristics. This type of detailed information is the basis upon which effective policies are shaped.

Assessments of countries’ statistical capacities reveal enormous challenges

Since the adoption of the 2030 Agenda in September 2015, developing countries have begun a process to mainstream the SDGs into their national development plans and monitoring and evaluation frameworks. Countries have also developed indicator frameworks to review progress towards the Goals. In many national statistical systems, the data requirements for the SDG indicators are being added to existing work programmes and to national strategies for the development of statistics. The aim is to organize data producers, identify sources, draw attention to data gaps and launch necessary capacity development activities.

The first step in developing these plans or strategies for SDG indicators is an assessment of a country’s statistical capacity through consultations with all members of the national statistical system. The United Nations Statistics Division in the Department of Economic and Social Affairs carried out such an assessment as part of a pilot project in six countries – three in Africa and three in Asia. It revealed that, on average, data for only 40 of the applicable global SDG indicators (20 per cent) are currently available; another 47 global indicators (23 per cent) are considered easily feasible, meaning that the data source is, in principle, available. Moreover, existing capacity is heavily reliant on external assistance. Additional resources are required to monitor additional indicators.

Implementing a national monitoring framework in Bangladesh

Since 2016, the Government of Bangladesh has actively implemented the SDG national monitoring framework. A principal coordinator position was created within the Office of the Prime Minister to spearhead the process and forge coordination. Many parts of the government, including the General Economics Division of the Planning Commission and the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics have published reports to identify and map data gaps and integrate the global SDG indicators into the Seventh Five-Year Plan (2016-2020).

The data gap analysis found that data on 70 indicators are available, and 108 can be generated by modifying existing censuses and surveys (for disaggregation). An additional 63 indicators will require new surveys or censuses to generate information for measuring performance in reaching SDG targets.

Standards for SDG data and metadata exchange will improve transparency and efficiency

Working with data for the full implementation and review of the SDGs entails exchange and sharing of a large amount of data stored in different databases maintained by the various producers. A standard known as Statistical Data and Metadata Exchange (SDMX) provides a common language and vocabulary for data sharing and consumption. Since October 2016, a group of experts from countries and international agencies responsible for the development of the indicators have worked to develop an SDMX-based standard for SDG data exchange.

The first draft data structure for the SDG indicators became available in early 2018. The national statistical offices of Cambodia and the United Republic of Tanzania are currently piloting its use. Once finalized, the SDMX standard is expected to be adopted by countries and international agencies to improve data exchange, dissemination and transparency in the global and national reporting of the SDG indicators. The standard for data will be complemented by a standard for metadata.

National reporting and dissemination platforms are key instruments for SDG implementation and review

Tools to gather, present and disseminate SDG data are key to ensuring their extensive and effective use by policymakers. National reporting and dissemination platforms for SDGs are indispensable to policymakers and, indeed, to all stakeholders for understanding where progress is being made and informing future interventions. They also serve a critical function in national data compilation, since they bring together data and metadata from across the entire statistical system. This helps ensure data quality and improve coordination of the national statistical system.

In the past, initiatives to set up online national reporting and dissemination platforms have delivered mixed results for users. A conference in early 2018 brought together more than 60 experts from national statistical offices, international and regional organizations that support reporting and dissemination platforms in countries, as well as donors and other solutions-providers. The conference focused on users’ needs, reviewed best practices and showcased solutions and possible ways forward for countries. The meeting produced principles and guidelines for the development and implementation of national reporting and dissemination platforms to guide countries in the establishment of their national platforms.

Designing a free, reusable and customizable national reporting platform for the SDGs

In 2016, the United States General Services Administration collaborated with the Office of Management and Budget to develop and launch an online national reporting platform for the SDGs. The innovation behind the initiative is the adaptation of an existing product with an established open-source community, offering a solution that is country-led, free for any country or organization to replicate and fully customizable. The Office for National Statistics in the United Kingdom further developed the tool and established it as its own national reporting platform for the SDGs. New enhancements include the ability to display disaggregated data for indicators – a feature that helps identify and prioritize those furthest behind. Both online platforms are works in progress. The USA-UK collaboration continues to support other countries in adopting their platforms and developing additional features, such as enhanced data visualization. For more information, see: https://sdg.data.gov/ and https://sustainabledevelopment-uk.github.io.

Using geospatial data can ensure that no one is left behind

Among the different categories of disaggregation called for in the 2030 Agenda, “place,” or geographic location, is critical for ensuring that no one is left behind. Geographic location is needed to know where a situation is present or where an event has occurred, and it is needed to allow decision makers to respond. Since 2011, the United Nations has made great strides in strengthening the global data ecosystem by establishing the UN Committee of Experts on Global Geospatial Information Management. The geospatial community, working closely with the statistical community, has investigated how geospatial information can be used for improving the production of many SDG indicators.

The integration of geospatial information with data and statistics for SDGs is also instrumental in enabling data inter-operability across data ecosystems and linking data sets within and across countries. National statistical offices and national geospatial agencies are now collaborating to establish a Federated Information System for the SDGs. This hub will be a repository for national SDG information and will also transmit this information to a global data hub.

Providing access to geospatial and statistical data through an SDG data hub

In November 2017, Ireland launched its national Hub for Sustainable Development Goals, an online platform that provides access to over 100 layers of geo-statistical data, data visualization tools and web applications relating to specific SDG targets. The hub is part of a broader collaboration initiated in September 2016 between the Central Statistics Office of Ireland and Ordnance Survey Ireland. The hub provides open and transparent access to integrated geospatial and statistical data in support of the government’s agenda for public-sector reform.

This collaboration is clearly a boon to all stakeholders, enabling synergies across national authorities responsible for the production and dissemination of geospatial and statistical data. At the same time, it demonstrates the value of visualizing SDG statistical data within a geospatial context and re-purposing existing systems and architectures to combine text, graphs and maps to tell data stories. This tool is helping galvanize action for the implementation of the 2030 Agenda at local and national levels. For more information, see: http://irelandsdg.geohive.ie/.

The United Nations World Data Forum is bringing data communities together

Bringing together different data communities of producers and users, and harnessing the power of technology and other innovative tools are essential to fulfilling the data demands of the 2030 Agenda. The United Nations World Data Forum provides a space in which all data producers can come together as a community, have a productive dialogue with users and policymakers, and identify ways to mobilize the necessary resources for data development. The forum was established by the United Nations Statistical Commission – an intergovernmental body comprising national statistical authorities from around the world – to allow all data producers, including those outside the traditional statistical systems, to present innovative approaches for data compilation, processing and communication.

Capacity development and resource mobilization for data are central to the activities of the UN World Data Forum. Capacity development is guided by the Cape Town Global Action Plan, launched at the first forum in 2017. The results of a joint survey – undertaken by the Partnership in Statistics for Development in the 21st Century and the High-level Group for Partnership, Coordination and Capacity-Building for Statistics for the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development – are a powerful reminder of the capacity needs of developing countries. Countries report that at the top of their list of most urgent needs are improved use of administrative data, better disaggregation by disability, among other dimensions, and statistics related to income, poverty and the environment.

The second UN World Data Forum will take place in October 2018 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. It will build on the success of the first forum, focusing on the following thematic areas:

  • New approaches to capacity development for better data
  • Innovations and synergies across data ecosystems
  • Leaving no one behind
  • Understanding the world through data
  • Building trust in data and statistics
  • How far have we come?