Harnessing census data collection with citizen participation in SDGs

In the spirit of the 2030 Agenda, a great diversity of stakeholders needs to be summoned to make available inclusive, disaggregated and valuable data for the SDG. Although the core of the efforts for this agenda are led by National Statistics Offices (NSOs), official statisticians need to give a more serious consideration to all the qualitative initiatives coming from civil society to aid in the endeavor of producing data to follow-up and review progress towards achieving the SDGs. In fact, a wider data ecosystem is greatly needed to start a real data revolution.

An ideal data ecosystem is a well articulated system of stakeholders involved in the entire information cycle for statistics; including a myriad of data agents, like source data and statistics producers, info-mediaries, IT developers, data visualization experts, and end-users of data. Eventually, a healthy ecosystem will yield data in a reusable format, with a final value higher than the original source.

Most of NSOs from all around the world are leading data producers, sometimes intermediate agents and in some other cases excellent data disseminators. However, most of them still need -- desperately in some cases -- to adopt more innovative data management approaches. Many actors are revolting the data ecosystem scene. For instance, civil society has evolved and a new generation of civic tech activists is beginning to lead the path to public engagement in nationwide projects, like health campaigns, urban planning data collection or humanitarian relief. The new comers are promoting along with governments of all levels collaborative and data-focused projects, together with opening data and enriching the production of data and statistics for SDGs with more diverse and disaggregated sources. The next census round is a perfect opportunity to take advantage of the growing empowerment of enthusiastic grassroots organizations prepared to boost the process of a fruitful SDG harvest.

These tools, especially those that are geo referenced, are showing an increasing value in the endeavor for a solid SDG data infrastructure in the most diverse countries: the United States Government included last year in an SDG statement the launching of a unilateral commitment to "innovating with open geographic data" for the SDGs. Similarly, DANE, the Colombian NSO, is planning to use geospatial data and at the same time asking to business chambers to crowd source databases to calculate jointly SDG indicators. Kenya´s government, in turn, is largely focusing on spatial planning and involving citizens in the heart of its strategic process for addressing the SDGs. On a different but more global level, a report for the United Nations Secretary-General from the 49th session of the UN Population Commission recognizes that "Geo-referencing is a considerable ally for the SDG endeavour because it can integrate diverse datasets with the incorporation of big data in analyses and modeling".

When considering the disaggregation of territorial issues and given the right conditions, citizen driven data for census collection can be really helpful, especially if it reaches out the more vulnerable communities. A real empowerment can gain adepts for the generation of geo data largely benefiting the shrinking NSOs budgets worldwide, especially in poorer countries.

Although these are all inspiring signs, a data revolution will need a more proactive support if we want it to overcome the curse of just being a buzz word: many NSOs across the world consider the data revolution in general, and open geodata initiatives in particular, as little more than a tech eccentricity or as some kind of novelty restricted—for the time being—to specialized practitioners. Not surprisingly, one common practice among NSOs when it comes to update geo data for the census preparation is to take advantage of commercial and proprietary code platforms, especially using available satellite images or a low cost account, with the promise of free of charge data.

While these practices may seek to lower census cartography costs, they can also hamper the diversification of sources and the access to local knowledge. In contrast, the use of non-commercial and easily accessible geo data initiatives from civil society can help avoid this risk. Open data advocates like GeoCensos, OpenStreetMap or Missing Maps are working in the geo data revolution already, mostly focusing in the realms of humanitarian aid and in some cases raising development issues.

These civic tech collectives have taken the open geo data endeavor for the benefit of large vulnerable populations. Their action can also aid the census collection process leveraged by a vibrant open data advocacy bringing added values, accessibility, transparency and a minimum statistical quality to enable the harvesting, use and reuse of geo data for the welfare of their countries. Unfortunately these efforts have not been regularly monitored, or in some cases not even witnessed, by the national statistics systems, especially in the Global South.

As part of the civil society, our own perception of this reality is that the data revolution needs a more decisive effort to advance in the scanning, promotion, proactive support and multi stakeholder development of projects of this nature, already available from open civil society platforms and derived initiatives. Compared to the higher costs that commercial solutions have especially in terms of accessibility and scalability , citizen data driven initiative can also prove efficiency, quality and local representativeness. If well understood, a set of good practices from civil society for NSOs may be readily available for the census data collection based on more diverse, valuable, disaggregated and efficient solutions. We firmly believe that the UN World Data Forum taking place 15-18 January in Cape Town will embrace also the ideas from actors coming from the civic grassroots to start a joint geo data revolution and map together a better world.