Measuring the state of data for public good and the achievement of the SDGs

With the end of April also came the end of a week full of presentations and discussions around the key role of data for sustainable development in the context of the United Nations World Data Forum (UNWDF) 20231 , held in Hangzhou, China. There are several important messages to extract from the presentations at the UNWDF, but this post will focus, in particular, on the role of data in monitoring progress of the development goals (SDGs).

To realize the value of data and data-related projects in achieving the SDGs, we need to take a closer look at the latest evidence on where countries stand regarding progress. To do so, we need tools to measure progress on a comparative global scale. Accordingly, there have been several attempts over last few years, such as the work of, for example, Zuiderwijk et al (2021) and also the Open Data Watch (2022), to map and assess the different benchmarks2. Projects, such as the Open Data Inventory (Open Data Watch, 2020), the Global Open Data Index (Open Knowledge Foundation, 2019), and the Open Data Barometer (web Foundation, 2018), are some of the main benchmarking exercises implemented in the past decade that have helped us understand the status of open data for development (some of them are still active and some are not). In 2022, a new benchmark was launched and published the results of its first edition: The Global Data Barometer (GDB). The GDB3 is a multi-dimensional index that assesses countries around the world that is focused on data for public good and providing much needed insight into where and how data is being used to advance development.

At the UNWDF session, “Global Data Barometer: Measuring the state of data for public good and the achievement of the SDGs”, organized by the Global Data Barometer in partnership with Open Data Watch, the role of global measurements was analyzed and discussed. During the first part of this hybrid conversation, Shaida Badiee (ODW), Francesca Perucci (UNSD-DESA) and Fernando Perini (IDRC) provided the foundation for the reflections made in the second part of the session, where some of the GDB’s thematic partners (such as Open Government Partnership, Global Fiscal Transparency Initiative, Land Portal and Open Contracting Partnership, in this opportunity) provided their views and experiences.

Concerns around the need to measure use and impact, as well as the challenges of sustaining these measurements, were raised several times in the session. Specific concerns included:

Use & Impact: It is widely understood that to measure the extent to which data is used to deliver socially valued impacts is extremely difficult. As the ODW report states, most indexes and tools focus on issues related to data production and dissemination, only the newest, such as the GDB, have begun to develop ways of measuring data use and impact. At the GDB, the use & impact pillar looks for evidence of particular cases of data use and explores which stakeholder groups are making use of data in each country. In the pilot edition, although limited in scope, the qualitative data gathered offers insights into the drivers of data use and the challenges faced by current and potential data users. Nevertheless, further research should be done to monitor and assess data use and its impacts.

Sustainability: Since 2015 or earlier, reports have been asking for benchmarking exercises to happen on a larger scale with higher frequency and less cost. These exercises require a large number of researchers4 that need to be coordinated, a large amount of data to be reviewed, and analysts to work on the results, to name just a few of the basic challenges. Thus, many reports and stakeholders expect and use the data coming from these benchmarks, but better analysis on the sustainability of these exercises need to happen. Moreover, gaps in country coverage and infrequent or irregular updating limit the usefulness and comparability of indexes between countries and over time. To avoid these scenarios, there is an urgent need for an honest conversation about long-term sustainability, especially if we want to keep having independent civil society benchmarking. A data collaborative dedicated to improving and sustaining the different measurements of data systems might be needed in the near future in order to provide quality results and support to these initiatives.

Local knowledge: It is important not only to assess the status of data for development globally, but it is also vital to support capacity building locally in each of the countries that are included in these measurements. Thus, initiatives such as the GDB, where regional hubs are in charge of recruiting and supporting local knowledge, as well as providing local context to the topics and results, are important in the benchmark ecosystem. It is clear that a central team (usually in the global north) with total control over the data collection makes the process easier but also less diverse, and it does not help to build national ecosystems. With independent benchmarking coming from civil society initiatives, context and local knowledge is not only supported but actually possible. However, an extra layer of supervision needs to be added to ensure the consistency and quality of results. In this sense, independent benchmarks such as the GDB need to work with a group of researchers focused on quality assurance and the homogenization of the results. A data collaborative initiative might be also helpful in this regard, helping to provide quality results and support to these initiatives.

Moving forward

There are many additional conversations to keep having around the need for evidence on where countries stand regarding their progress toward development goals, however this is just the beginning of discussions that will be taking place over the next few months as we start developing the second edition of the GDB to measure progress on a comparative global scale. This is a great opportunity to reflect and implement the points included in this note. We will keep you updated, but in the meantime, we cordially invite you to check out the results of the first edition on our website!

1 The main focus of this event was the role of data in advancing toward the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and Agenda 2030. There were four days packed with sessions and presentations organized around four thematic areas: innovation and partnerships for better and more inclusive data; Maximizing the use and value of data for better decision making; Building trust and ethics in data; and Emerging trends and partnerships to develop the data ecosystem.

2 Others:

3 It reflects the work of a number of global partners, regional research hubs, and more than 100 country-level researchers, who provided evidence on the governance, capability, availability, and the use of data for public good across a variety of sectors. The development of the Global Data Barometer responds to demand expressed at the 2019 Open Government Partnership summit for updated, in-depth, country-level insights on data governance and availability.

4 For benchmarking to work at a global level, they need to assess a large number of countries.