Investing in data to save lives and build back better

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, policymakers and business leaders have routinely had to make critical and time-sensitive decisions, many of which have life-or-death consequences. Yet even basic data to guide decision-making – on health, the society and the economy – are often lacking. The pandemic has brought to the forefront the critical importance of such data. It has also accelerated the transformation of data and statistical systems and how the public perceives and uses that information. As policy- and decision makers were pressuring data providers for more up-to-date and accurate information, national statistical offices (NSOs) and their partners stepped up to the challenge. They forged new collaborations and leveraged alternative data solutions while increasing efforts to protect data privacy and confidentiality.

As the pandemic continues to unfold, and the world moves further off track in meeting the 2030 SDG deadline, timely and high-quality data are more essential than ever. Indeed, data are being widely recognized as strategic assets in building back better and accelerating the implementation of the SDGs. What is needed now are new investments in data and information infrastructure, as well as human capacity to get ahead of the crisis and trigger earlier responses, anticipate future needs and design the urgent actions needed to realize the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Responding to an unprecedented demand for data

Despite major disruptions to statistical operations, many NSOs have adapted quickly. They have adopted new methods and tools to come up with data and have played a central role in Governments’ COVID-19 responses. As of September 2020, 82 per cent of NSOs were involved in data collection on COVID-19 and its impacts, some through innovative methods such as online and telephone-based surveys, as well as the use of administrative, credit card and scanner data.

In the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the Office for National Statistics has responded to an urgent need for information on how COVID-19 is affecting the population through methods such as web-scraping Google mobility data and the introduction of new surveys. Together with partners, the office set up a COVID-19 Infections Survey in a matter of days, which has since become an indispensable source of data on the pandemic. As of June 2021, interviewers had covered 2.4 million households and performed 4.6 million swab tests. The survey detected an uptick of new infections and the prevalence of the so-called Delta variant. In mid-June, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson delayed by a month his plans to lift the last COVID-19 restrictions. The delay in reopening was intended to buy additional time for the health department to intensify its vaccination programme, which was also informed by data showing that new infections were largely driven by those who were not fully vaccinated.

In Ghana, the Statistical Service responded successfully to the sudden increase in data demand. When COVID-19 hit, “suddenly, the appetite for numbers grew,” says Omar Seidu, the head of demographic statistics and SDG coordinator at the Ghana Statistical Service. In addition to the number of new COVID-19 cases, other important questions were raised, such as which regions were densely populated, how many people lived in crowded situations, and which parts of the country had no water for handwashing.

The Ghana Statistical Service was able to guide policymakers on crisis response and service delivery by bringing together a wide range of data and disseminating them through a central COVID-19 data hub, supported by a joint project on SDG monitoring with the United Nations and the Government of the United Kingdom (the UNSD-FCDO project). The Ghana Statistical Service also helped monitor lockdown compliance through mobility data gathered in partnership with a cell-phone carrier. The crisis expanded the role of statisticians in the country. “In the past, our role was more or less limited to data collection,” says Mr. Seidu. “Ministers and other decision makers now want us to have a seat at the table, not only for COVID-19 task forces, but on development policy as a whole.”

Advancing progress on data for SDG monitoring and improving people’s lives

Considerable progress has been made on the availability of internationally comparable data on the SDGs. The number of indicators included in the global SDG database increased from 115 in 2016 to around 160 in 2019 and 211 in 2021.

The advancements in data availability have had a direct impact on people’s lives. Sugarmaa Batjargal was born on a cold February day in Mongolia’s Alag-Erdene District. She was a healthy infant, thanks to the midwife who visited her mother during pregnancy and taught her about proper nutrition and ways to care for a baby in harsh weather conditions. These prenatal and neonatal services were put in place because of data that identified the region as high risk for child mortality. Between 1990 and 2019, the country’s neonatal mortality rate dropped significantly, from 30 to 8 deaths per 1,000 live births. Only with the right data can Governments know which children are most at risk and how best to reach them.

Identifying data gaps to achieve the SDGs

For every success story like Sugarmaa’s, there are many other stories of deprivation and inequity – the children who are not reached simply because there is no information about them. A lack of data severely limits a country’s ability to reach children and their families – to ensure that they have the services, opportunities and choices they deserve to live life to the fullest. An average of 74 per cent of child-related SDG indicators either have insufficient data or show insufficient progress to meet the global targets by 2030.

Despite improvements, big data gaps still exist in all areas of the SDGs in terms of geographic coverage, timeliness and the level of disaggregation required. Intensified efforts need to be made to fill those gaps. An analysis of the indicators in the Global SDG Indicators Database reveals that, for 5 of the 17 Goals, fewer than half of 193 countries or areas have internationally comparable data. This lack of country-level data is particularly worrisome for Goal 13 (climate action), where, on average, only about 1 in 6 countries have data available. Country-level data deficits are also significant in areas related to sustainable cities and communities (Goal 11), peace, justice and strong institutions (Goal 16), sustainable production and consumption (Goal 12), and gender equality (Goal 5). What’s more, lockdown measures implemented to control the spread of COVID-19 have hindered data collection efforts for much of 2020, widening gaps in the capacity of countries to report on many of the indicators.

Proportion of countries or areas with available data, by Goal (percentage)
Note: The data in this chart are not comparable with those presented in The Sustainable Development Goals Report 2020 due to changes in the SDG indicator framework and the calculation method. The SDG indicators framework was comprehensively reviewed and revised in 2020, resulting in 36 major changes to indicators in the form of replacements, revisions, additions and deletions.

Data timeliness has also been a challenge for SDG monitoring. For instance, the latest data point available for climate change indicators (Goal 13) is around 2015. The average of the latest available year for data on poverty (Goal 1) and education (Goal 4) is around 2016.

The most recent year available (weighted average by indicator), by Goal
Note: The data in this chart are not comparable with those presented in The Sustainable Development Goals Report 2020 due to changes in the SDG indicator framework and the calculation method. The SDG indicators framework was comprehensively reviewed and revised in 2020, resulting in 36 major changes to indicators in the form of replacements, revisions, additions and deletions.

Addressing the vulnerability of data and information infrastructure

COVID-19 has further exposed the vulnerability of national data and information infrastructures. A seemingly straightforward question such as “How many people have died from COVID-19?” cannot be answered in many countries due to the absence of a complete and well-functioning civil registration system. Globally, only 62 per cent of countries had a death registration system that was at least 75 per cent complete in 2015–2019; the share in sub-Saharan African countries was less than 20 per cent.

During the pandemic, many countries also struggled with interruptions in data collection caused by lockdown measures. Face-to-face survey interviews were often stopped and statistical services reduced. In places where data and information infrastructure did not permit the use of alternative data collection tools (such as online or telephone-based surveys), data production was more severely affected. Countries with integrated and well-functioning household survey systems were more resilient. In a compilation of national COVID-19 impact surveys maintained by the Inter-Secretariat Working Group on Household Surveys, only 43 per cent of around 180 countries used a recent household survey as a sampling frame for telephone interviews; the remaining countries lacked a usable sample frame.

Important operations, such as population censuses, were seriously disrupted around the world. A survey of NSOs showed that about 42 per cent of countries have had to postpone censuses scheduled for 2020 or 2021 for at least one year. European countries, many of which typically use population registers rather than traditional censuses, were less affected. Only 13 per cent of the European country censuses were disrupted versus 60 per cent in Africa.

Proportion of countries that have postponed their censuses scheduled for 2020 or 2021

Overall, countries with the necessary information technology (IT) infrastructure and skill sets were more resilient, and their statistical operations were less affected. In mid-2020, 20 per cent of NSOs faced constraints in their ability to operate remotely due to inadequate IT equipment or infrastructure. Three out of four countries in the low- and middle-income group saw their production of monthly and quarterly statistics negatively affected by the pandemic. In contrast, production of short-term statistics was completely unaffected in two thirds of responding countries in the high-income group, attributable to their heavier reliance on administrative data sources and remote data collection modes. This disparity highlights the need for smart investments to build the necessary infrastructure and the right skill sets across national statistical systems to support remote work, training, and data collection and storage. Such investments are vital if NSOs are to operate during times of crisis and to spur the innovation and transformation needed to fulfil data demands during the recovery and to achieve the SDGs.

Driving innovation to advance SDG implementation

COVID-19 has introduced a wide-ranging of disruptions to national statistical systems. At the same time, it has pushed countries into trying new ways of doing things. The survey of NSOs, for example, showed that 58 per cent of countries carried out telephone instead of face-to-face interviews to monitor the impact of COVID-19. In May 2021, 58 per cent of NSOs surveyed indicated that their overall information and communication technology readiness has significantly improved over the past six months.

Innovative methods such as the integration of geospatial information and household survey data are also being used to produce more disaggregated and timely data. Colombia’s National Administrative Department of Statistics is using satellite imagery and household surveys to produce municipality-level data on multidimensional poverty. This exercise, supported by the Data for Now initiative, has provided new insights into decision-making to combat poverty.

In addition, machine learning algorithms, when coupled with social science, can further understanding of public perceptions on issues such as discrimination. COVID-19 has prompted further innovative data collection methods such as measuring social distancing compliance with mobile phone data and uncovering disease transmission patterns using data from contact-tracing apps.

While encouraging, the emergence of innovation is not without risk. Proper data governance that guards the privacy of individual information needs to be put in place. Potential biases in data and algorithms should also be checked to ensure that inequality is not further exacerbated.

Leveraging the power of collaboration and partnerships

To meet data demands in the face of inadequate data infrastructure, partners at the national and international level have been working together closely. For the 2019 population census in Kenya, the National Bureau of Statistics partnered with the National Commission on Human Rights to work with communities who have historically been left behind. As a result, for the first time, intersex persons, persons with albinism, indigenous peoples and stateless populations were all counted in the census. This enabled the Government to tailor services, but it also demonstrated to members of these groups that they count. “I asked the enumerator to show me the ‘I’ mark [for intersex]. I saw it, and I got emotional,” recalls one census respondent, the parent of an intersex child from Kajiado. “This is the beginning of a long journey, and it’s going in the right direction.” In New Zealand, data gathered through citizen input is helping make life a little easier for the disabled.

Citizens help drive social change through data

The level of disability parking abuses in New Zealand has remained high over the past 10 years. To address this issue, an app was developed that can be used by citizens to report disability parking availability and misuse. The initiative was undertaken by CCS Disability Action, the country’s largest support and advocacy organization for people with all kinds of disabilities, in partnership with Statistics New Zealand and SaferMe. Crowdsourcing information, generated by citizens through the app, is providing data on the availability and accessibility of disability parking in parks and open spaces, and will help reduce misuse.

At the international level, a technical advisory group of epidemiologists, biostatisticians, demographers and national statisticians worked tirelessly to help the World Health Organization and Member States obtain accurate estimates of deaths attributable to the pandemic. The group was convened by the World Health Organization and the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs.

Building statistical capacity in a more effective and sustainable way

The challenges of COVID-19 have prompted many statistical agencies, at both international and national levels, to rethink their training programmes. At least 75 per cent of all statistical capacity development events in 2020 were conducted online, compared with only about 5 per cent in 2019, according to the United Nations Statistics Division Global Calendar of Statistical Events, which includes information from major international agencies.

Given its efficacy, remote training is probably here to stay, even if combined with in-person initiatives. A question remains as to what other strategies can make statistical capacity-building more effective and sustainable. A study of national statistical training programmes in 15 countries, led by the Global Network of Institutes for Statistical Training (GIST), showed that many countries have been proactive in identifying training needs and offering training opportunities for their staff. Among the lessons learned, one stands out: a key element in effective capacity-building is to set priorities by internal needs, rather than those driven by external partners. Areas that are in high demand but often overlooked by traditional statistical trainings include the coordination of the national statistical system, user engagement, management and financing.

International partners can also help fill gaps by making training materials easily accessible. Examples include the UN SDG:Learn Statistics portal, coordinated by GIST, and the provision of platforms to foster the exchange of experience among countries.

Ways to build national statistical capacity

Many statistical offices are working proactively to ensure that the training needs of their staff are met. The following examples are extracted from a GIST report called Sustainable Statistical Training Programs at National Statistical Offices:

Ireland identified 13 key skills with five levels of knowledge under each skill and linked them to the job descriptions of staff. A gap assessment is being carried out every year and training programmes are being designed based on the level of needs.

Morocco promoted the use of available e-learning courses. A total of 65 courses were identified by various providers and were paid by the country’s NSO for all staff. This approach has been particularly valuable during the pandemic.

Myanmar developed a training curriculum based on a gap assessment and encouraged development partners to deliver trainings that were in line with internal needs.

Improving data and metadata access

To support a rapid and effective response to a crisis, comprehensive and integrated data must be readily available, easy to find and able to be shared publicly, as appropriate. During the pandemic, many countries provided public dashboards with daily updates to monitor the spread of the disease. Some also provided greater access to utility data, such as the location of essential services, including supermarkets, pharmacies and petrol stations, as in the case of Mexico.

Open national data platforms for the SDGs have been adopted by many countries, allowing them to better meet the needs of a wide range of users. The National Statistical Committee of Kyrgyzstan was one of the pioneers. Its SDG platform makes use of Open SDG, an open-source data platform solution developed in part by the Office for National Statistics of the United Kingdom and implemented with support from the UNSD-FCDO project on SDG monitoring.

Opening up SDG data to all users in Kyrgyzstan

The SDG platform of Kyrgyzstan and other related outputs were developed in response to users’ requests. “Users need to be able to download, work and analyse the data on their own while we are collecting their feedback and, in turn, adapt our work to their needs,” says Nazira Kerimalieva, head of sustainable development and environmental statistics for the National Statistical Committee of Kyrgyzstan. “Whenever a statistics user is requesting information, we make ourselves available, whether it is a student, journalist or policymaker,” Kerimalieva explains. “We never say ‘no’, and we listen to our users’ needs!”

The platform provides information on progress towards the SDGs and the availability of data and national SDG reports. It is targeted to the general public through easy-to-understand language and infographics and serves data experts through the downloading of data in open formats.