The need for data innovations in the time of COVID-19

The importance of timely, quality, open and disaggregated data and statistics has never been as clear as during the COVID-19 crisis. Such data are critical in understanding, managing and mitigating the human, social and economic effects of the pandemic. They are also essential for designing short-term responses and accelerated actions to put countries back on track to achieve the SDGs.

Many of the data challenges encountered during the first five years of SDG implementation are severely limiting COVID-19 responses. These include the lack of basic health, social and economic data. To make matters worse, the crisis is disrupting routine operations throughout the global statistical and data system, with delays in planned censuses, surveys and other data programmes.

In response, members of the statistical community have quickly set up mechanisms to ensure operational continuity by adapting and innovating data production methods and processes. Assessments of statistical operations around the world show that investments and support for data innovations are urgently needed. These will help to both inform policy responses to the crisis and support SDG acceleration efforts over the coming decade.

Serious data gaps remain in assessing country-level progress towards the SDGs

Over the years, good progress has been made in increasing the availability of internationally comparable data for SDG monitoring. However, huge data gaps still exist in terms of geographic coverage, timeliness and the level of disaggregation required. Moreover, challenges remain in compiling and disseminating metadata to document the data quality of SDG indicators at local and national levels.

An analysis of the indicators in the Global SDG Indicators Database (https://unstats.un.org/sdgs/indicators/database) reveals that for 4 of the 17 goals, less than half of 194 countries or areas have internationally comparable data. This lack of country-level data is particularly worrisome for Goal 5 (gender equality), where on average only about 4 in 10 countries have data available. Country-level data deficits are also significant in areas related to sustainable production and consumption (Goal 12) and to climate action (Goal 13). What’s more, even countries with available data have only a small number of observations over time, making it difficult for policymakers to monitor progress and identify trends.

Data coverage: proportion of countries or areas with available data (weighted average across indicators), by Goal (percentage)

In addition, a large number of SDG indicators are available only with a significant time lag. For instance, in at least half of countries or areas in the database, the latest data point available for poverty-related indicators (Goal 1) is for 2016 or earlier. A similar situation is found for indicators on gender equality (Goal 5), sustainable cities (Goal 11) and peace, justice, and strong institutions (Goal 16).

Data timeliness: the most recent year available (weighted average of the median country by indicator), by Goal

The pandemic is jeopardizing the production of data central to the achievement of the SDGs

As Governments attempt to contain the spread of the coronavirus, field data collection operations are being disrupted. This is limiting the ability of many national statistical offices to deliver official monthly and quarterly statistics as well as the data necessary to monitor progress on the SDGs.

A recent survey conducted by the United Nations and the World Bank (with responses from 122 countries) shows that the pandemic has affected the operations of the vast majority of national statistical offices: 65 per cent of headquarters are partially or fully closed, 90 per cent have instructed staff to work from home, and 96 per cent have partially or fully stopped face-to-face data collection. In sub-Saharan Africa, 97 per cent of countries surveyed indicated that the production of regular statistics was affected, and 88 per cent of countries in Latin America and the Caribbean indicated that they were having difficulty meeting international data reporting requirements.

According to survey results, 9 in 10 national statistical offices in low- and lower-middle-income countries have seen funding cuts and are struggling to maintain normal operations during the pandemic. In fact, 73 offices – 61 per cent of those responding to the questionnaire – expressed the need for external support in addressing challenges associated with COVID-19. Priority areas cited included technical assistance and capacity-building, financial aid, and software for remote data collection.

If these needs are not filled, they will have a lasting effect on countries’ ability to produce timely and disaggregated data for a large number of SDG indicators. In other words, the COVID-19 pandemic is not only creating a massive setback in the realization of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, but it is also exacerbating global data inequalities. The statistical community and donors must urgently provide technical and financial support to national statistical offices most in need.

Survey results (percentage): Is the current COVID-19 pandemic affecting your ability to

Meet international reporting requirements?
Produce essential monthly & quarterly statistics?
Produce administrative data statistics?

Investments in data and innovation are key to responding to the crisis and to supporting SDG acceleration

Investments in data and statistics are needed to maintain adequate coverage of all population groups as well as to guarantee the internal consistency, comparability and overall quality of data produced to advance implementation of the 2030 Agenda. For example, many countries would benefit from support to fully digitize their data collection instead of using traditional paper-based methods. This could include telephone and web-based surveys, and using administrative data along with newer, more innovative data sources to produce official statistics.

One important area of innovation is the integration of geospatial and statistical information. The integrated analysis and visualization of geospatially enabled data on SDG indicators enhances the ability of policymakers and the public at large to understand and respond to local circumstances and needs across geographic space and time. It also offers insights into data connections and relationships that can be further explored by combining traditional and non-traditional sources of data, statistics and information.

© Silviu Costin Iancu