Statisticians embrace UN World Data Forum as vital to innovation

"Stakeholder revolution" and collaboration seen as key to better data

Senior national statisticians and key partners gave a resounding endorsement of the UN World Data Forum 2018, at a side event on 7 March at the UN Statistical Commission, taking place in New York that week.

The Forum represents "one of the really big changes in the way we operate," said Stefan Schweinfest, Director of the UN Statistics Division, which serves as the secretariat for the Forum, in his introduction to the event. He pointed to the many positive outcomes and initiatives that resulted from a new breed of cooperation at the first UN World Data Forum, held in Cape Town, South Africa in early 2017.

Bringing together data experts from national statistical offices, the private sector, civil society, the scientific and academic communities, and international agencies, under the auspices of the UN, the Forum is well positioned to foster collaboration and innovation.

"The Cape Town Forum created a legitimate space for data experts to come together to create cross-community synergy," said Tom Orrell, a consultant from the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data, presenting the work on data interoperability in support of the sustainable development goals. "There was a recognition in Cape Town that we need to break down silos" in order to improve data, he added. The new initiative on data interoperability, launched in Cape Town, has been moving forward, he noted, and the outcomes of the activities will be presented in Dubai.

The Cape Town Forum "was really a stakeholder revolution," commented Ola Awad, Chief Statistician for Palestine and member of the Programme Committee for the UN World Data Forum 2018. "The private sector took a great role, and we listened and learned. We as national institutions cannot do it all. The private sector has so many creative and innovative ways of bringing new data." She also noted that national statistical institutions not only continue to be indispensable producers of data but are increasingly managing the information data systems in each country.

Dr. Awad expressed the hope that the 2018 Forum will further enhance partnerships and also do more to engage policy makers, to help bridge the gap between policy and statistics. "If data is not utilized, it is useless," she said. The 2018 Forum will be an important opportunity for the Arab region to bring more attention to statistics and data, she said. Several speakers at the event echoed the need for more policy makers to be present at the 2018 Forum and shared ideas for how to engage them.

Building Consensus on 'Wicked Issues'

"One purpose of the UN World Data Forum is to bring what I call 'wicked issues' to the table and build consensus," said Shaida Badiee, a member of the Forum's Programme Committee, from Open Data Watch, a non-governmental organization. The first Forum made progress on some 'wicked issues' like open data and gender data, she felt. After the first Forum, 'open data' became part of the language of national statistical offices, she said, quoting a comment from Lisa Bernales, the Chief Statistician of the Philippines. And now, for the first time, open data was on the formal agenda of the Statistical Commission.

Ms. Badiee said that open data was a good example of the value of the UN World Data Forum, how it could help bring a new and potentially challenging issue into the formal intergovernmental process. The open data movement seeks to make data more accessible, and many civil society advocates cite the need for open data in order to hold governments accountable to their citizens.

2018 Forum Plans in Progress

Preparations for the 2018 Forum are progressing. Over 480 proposals for sessions have been submitted from all stakeholders in an open process, said Francesca Perucci, Assistant Director of the UN Statistics Division, and efforts were underway by the Forum's Programme Committee and secretariat to winnow these down to 80 coherent and collaborative sessions.

"It will be a very rich programme; that we can see already," said Gabriella Vukovich, Hungary's Chief Statistician and co-chair of the High-level Group overseeing the Forum preparations. The programme is expected to be announced in mid-April.

Ms. Vukovich also noted that there are plans for the 2018 Forum to have an outcome document setting out strategic perspectives and activities and addressing the way forward. These would build upon the Cape Town Global Action Plan for Sustainable Development Data launched at the 2017 Forum, which provides a framework of strategic objectives and specific activities on data for the 2030 Agenda and is a useful basis for building statistical capacity.

Looking ahead, Mr. Schweinfest added that plans for the third UN World Data Forum, in 2020 have begun. Governments interested in hosting are welcome to submit bids by the end of March.

Changing "Forum" from a Noun to a Verb

Giving a perspective from the United Arab Emirates as host country for the 2018 Forum, Mohammad Ahli of the Federal Competitiveness and Statistical Authority stressed that the Forum will be an excellent space for the private sector and NSIs to interact. The UAE had recently hosted an open data student hackathon to engage youth in the Forum.

In Cape Town, "forum" was a noun, Ms. Baidee said in her remarks. As we head into Dubai, she said, "forum" has become a verb, meaning to work together with a range of stakeholders to take the "better data, better lives" agenda forward. Mr. Schweinfest echoed this in his closing comments, saying that it felt good to do what the UN does best, bringing people together to solve global problems.