Thinking beyond crisis: using the pandemic to advance high-quality, timely and inclusive data

The COVID-19 pandemic has upended life as we know it. At the same time, it has forced new ways of thinking and opened up new opportunities. The global statistical community is exploring ways to seize these opportunities and learn from the pandemic. Its aim: to take that knowledge forward to provide better data for better lives – now and in what may be turbulent years ahead.

The impact of COVID-19 on national statistics offices (NSOs) around the world was dramatic. At the start of the pandemic, in-person data collection was abruptly halted in almost all countries. Meanwhile, data demand for policymaking and to inform the general public reached a new high. In seeking to understand the impact of the virus, for example, public health authorities needed timely and disaggregated death statistics. But monthly mortality data are still not available in the majority of countries. Moreover, many NSOs lack the information and communication technology (ICT) infrastructure to carry out their daily work remotely. Compounding these problems was the fact that domestic and external funding for statistical activities has been cut back in many countries, particularly those that need it most.

Despite the challenges, many NSOs found new ways to get the job done. One of them was using non-traditional data sources, such as mobile phone data, satellite imagery and citizen-generated data, along with new modes of data collection, such as web- or telephone-based or mix-mode interviews. The offices encouraged collaborative efforts and played a stronger coordination role within national data ecosystems. Such initiatives have provided the data needed to better understand the course and effects of the crisis on health, jobs, migration, violence against women and a range of other issues. Yet the level of responses among national statistical systems differed widely. Those that already had a solid and well-established data system have been better equipped to react creatively to the crisis.

Moreover, the path to success was not always straightforward. Innovations and new approaches, without careful attention to design and assessment, can inadvertently reinforce inequality and exclusion. In addition, NSOs needed to develop effective communication strategies to address the “pandemic” of misinformation and disinformation about COVID-19.

As the world slowly emerges from the crisis, timely, disaggregated and high-quality data are more important than ever. What are needed now are further investments in data and information infrastructure, drawing from lessons learned during the pandemic. The objective is to get ahead of the crisis so that we can trigger more timely responses, anticipate future needs, and design the urgent actions needed to realize the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

The analysis that follows is based on four rounds of global surveys monitoring the effects of the pandemic on national statistical operations between May 2020 and May 2021, carried out jointly by the United Nations Statistics Division and the World Bank. It also draws on a survey on the implementation of the Cape Town Global Action Plan for Sustainable Development Data, carried out in August and September 2021.

Despite some progress, serious data gaps persist in SDG monitoring

Considerable progress has been made in the availability of internationally comparable data for SDG monitoring: the number of indicators included in the global SDG database increased from 115 in 2016 to 217 in 2022. However, significant data gaps still exist in terms of geographic coverage, timeliness and level of disaggregation, making it difficult to fully comprehend the pace of progress towards the realization of the 2030 Agenda, differences across regions and who is being left behind.

For 8 of the 17 SDGs, fewer than half of the 193 countries or areas have internationally comparable data from 2015 or later. While Goal 3 (health) and Goal 7 (energy) have the highest data availability (more than 80 per cent of countries have at least one data point since 2015), only around 20 per cent of countries have data for Goal 13 (climate action).

Also insufficient are disaggregated data for monitoring the progress of vulnerable population groups. Among the 32 SDG indicators with a requirement of sex disaggregation, only 21 have the latest disaggregated data available in most countries (more than 80 per cent of countries have at least one data point since 2015); for 8 indicators, no sex disaggregated data are available at all. Data are available for

only 7 out of 21 indicators that require disaggregation by both sex and age. When considering other disaggregation dimensions such as disability status, the picture is even murkier. Out of 10 SDG indicators that require disaggregation by disability status, data are available for only 2 of them.

Proportion of countries or areas with available data since 2015, by Goal (percentage)

COVID-19 made clear the need for a strong statistical foundation

COVID-19 posed a serious threat to already struggling national statistical systems and was a wake-up call to the need for stronger statistical and ICT foundations. In May 2020, 96 per cent of countries put a full or partial stop to face-to-face data collection due to national lockdown measures. One year later, in May 2021, disruptions in face-to-face data collection were still occurring in 57 per cent of countries. Countries that only relied on in-person data collection before the pandemic were heavily affected, while countries with experience in remote data collection, or that had experimented with it, were at a considerable advantage. For example, in the United Kingdom, the immediate roll-out of a time-use survey during the pandemic benefited from earlier experimentation with remote data collection. The survey, carried out through the Internet, enabled policymakers to understand how the pandemic changed the way people spent their time.

One crack in the statistical foundation exposed during the pandemic was a lack of national mortality data for adults, which is needed to understand the true death toll of COVID-19. When a United Nations Technical Advisory Group was tasked with estimating national and global COVID-19-related excess mortality, they found that only 38 per cent of countries had the required monthly mortality data from January 2020 to December 2021. This lack of underlying data reflects a serious flaw in national vital statistics systems, which encompass death registration, household surveys and population censuses. Death registration in many countries is incomplete and delayed; data collection through censuses and surveys provides data with a time lag of 5 to 10 years; and mortality data for older people are often not collected.

ICT infrastructure has been crucial during the pandemic in helping countries carry out data collection and training remotely as well as in storing data and fostering collaboration. In July 2020, only 62 per cent of all responding countries reported having sufficient ICT capabilities for remote training, and only 55 per cent had sufficient cloud computing services for remote data storage and data exchange. There is a divide between countries at different income levels. High-income countries were more equipped in terms of ICT, while low- and lower-middle-income countries were much less prepared.

Proportion of countries that stopped face-to-face data collection, May 2020–May 2021 (percentage)

The crisis is helping shape the future of innovation

The COVID-19 crisis has been an extraordinary challenge for national statistical systems. It has also been an opportunity to experiment with innovative data collection methods, explore new data sources and modernize ICT infrastructures to meet data demands for policymaking. Throughout that process, the importance of fully inclusive data was made evident. Moving forward, experiences during the pandemic can be used to inform the future of innovation in official statistics.

At the beginning of the crisis, more than 80 per cent of countries indicated they would be using phone surveys to collect data to measure the impact of COVID-19, and 37 per cent said they would be using web surveys – a significant increase from the pre-pandemic level. Administrative data, model-based estimates and non-traditional data sources – including phone call detail records, scanner data, social media, remote sensing and citizen-generated data – were all considered by countries.

In addition, many NSOs accelerated modernization of their ICT systems. In May 2021, 58 per cent of NSOs reported improvements in their overall ICT readiness over the previous six months. The main actions taken were deploying new collaboration software (85 per cent) and providing new equipment to staff (73 per cent). Another significant action for improving ICT readiness highlighted by NSOs was deploying new remote access tools such as virtual private network (VPN), Virtual Desktop and Mobile Office (61 per cent).

Proportion of countries that reported the use of innovative approaches to measure the impact of COVID-19, May 2020 (percentage)
Proportion of countries that significantly improved ICT readiness in the past six months, May 2021 (percentage)

The pandemic was a reminder to leave no one behind

Collecting data on vulnerable population groups, such as migrants and persons with disabilities, is crucial in identifying the challenges they face and understanding who are being left behind. The use of innovative approaches, such as mobile phone surveys and artificial intelligence, should be accompanied by an assessment to ensure that innovations are not inadvertently excluding or harming the most vulnerable groups.

For example, the digital divide in mobile phone ownership and Internet access was cited as the main reason for not reaching certain population groups during the pandemic. Among countries surveyed, 39 per cent had difficulties adequately collecting data on migrants, 27 per cent had difficulties collecting data on older persons, and 27 per cent had difficulties with data on persons with disabilities. Moreover, traditional surveys that focus only on households leave out individuals living in institutions, such as nursing homes and other residential care facilities, homeless shelters and prisons, all of which have been heavily affected by the pandemic.

Proportion of countries having difficulty collecting data on specific population groups, by income group, May 2021 (percentage)

NSOs need to strengthen coordination within national data ecosystems

During the pandemic, partnerships were formed among government agencies, academic institutions, local governments, private businesses and civil society organizations to collect urgently needed data for policymaking. Such collaboration fostered new ideas and resources; it also increased the resulting data’s inclusivity, timeliness and utilization. National statistics offices played a stronger coordination role in many countries. The Statistics Institute of Jamaica, for example, partnered with the Ministry of Health and other experts in leading a committee to match data demand with available data needed to guide policy during the crisis. To help fill data gaps on the SDGs, National Bureau of Statistics of Kenya initiated partnerships with civil society organizations and integrated a set of quality criteria for citizen-generated data in its newly released Kenya Statistical Quality Assurance Framework.

Despite all the effort, NSOs from many countries felt they could do better in coordinating work within the national data ecosystem. Globally, only 17 per cent of countries surveyed felt that their coordination within the data ecosystem was satisfactory. The satisfaction level varied by income level: it averaged 25 per cent in high-income countries but only 8 per cent in low- and lower-middle-income countries.

Proportion of national statistics offices that felt their capacity to coordinate within the larger data ecosystem could be improved, by income group, August–September 2021 (percentage)

Effective communication strategies helped combat misinformation and disinformation

The pandemic placed unprecedented demands on NSOs around the world. In addition to setting the gold standard for data quality within a country, these offices were expected to take the lead in correcting the abundance of misinformation and disinformation circulating about the impact of COVID-19. To do so, NSOs needed to relay their findings to different data users through new and more traditional approaches to outreach. However, surveys indicated major gaps in the approaches used depending on the income level of a country. The use of newer, more innovative approaches, such as social media, publication programmes targeted to specific user groups, seminars, eLearning platforms, live chat sessions and podcasts, was favoured by higher-income countries, while low- and lower-middle-income countries favoured more traditional approaches to user engagement. These included press conferences, traditional media appearances, general awareness campaigns, presentations, conferences and launch events. These findings signal an area for collective action by the statistical community. The opportunity is ripe to take advantage of modern communication channels and produce tailored support and data products to reach different user groups.

Proportion of national statistics offices that carried out activities to educate and reach data users in the past three years, by income group, August–September 2021 (percentage)

Increased investment in data and statistics is urgently needed

During the pandemic, 40 per cent of NSOs saw data collection costs rise, while government funding for 48 per cent of NSOs was cut back. In sub-Saharan Africa, 61 per cent of countries saw these costs rise, while 71 per cent saw a drop in government funding and 59 per cent saw a drop in donor funding for NSOs. This trend was corroborated by an analysis of official development assistance for data and statistics, which showed that funding for many basic data activities was quickly deprioritized at the beginning of the pandemic. NSOs in two thirds of countries eligible for borrowing from the International Development Association (IDA) also experienced either moderate or severe delays in budget disbursement at the beginning of the 2021 fiscal year.

Over the next three years, NSOs in most IDA countries are expecting to face significant funding shortages for targeted programmes from development aid providers. Over two thirds (69 per cent) of countries surveyed identified business and agricultural censuses as the area that will face the most significant funding shortages, followed by population and housing censuses (56 per cent) and household surveys (52 per cent). In terms of policy sectors that will require additional support over this time period, health statistics was identified as a top priority by 76 per cent of IDA countries.

The last two years have seen a major blow to the world's economy and people, and lower-income countries were hit particularly hard. Investing in data capacities and data partnerships to leave no one behind, build trust and fill data gaps to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals must be a priority for national governments and the international community if countries are to rely upon evidence-based policy responses to emerge stronger from the crisis and face the unknown challenges ahead.

This reaffirms the urgency of implementing important frameworks including the Cape Town Global Action Plan for Sustainable Development Data, the Dubai Declaration and the Bern Data Compact for the Decade of Action on the Sustainable Development Goals, all agreed by the data community during the United Nations World Data Forums, to build statistical capacity and adopt an innovative demand-driven funding mechanism that can respond quickly and efficiently to the priorities of national statistical systems, with the goal of mobilizing both domestic and international funds.

Proportion of national statistics offices that experienced a reduction in funding from the government and donors/other sources since the beginning of the pandemic, May 2021 (percentage)