The power of new data sources: how to harness the private sector's role?

On the quest to establish and adapt the current data ecosystems to reflect the global sustainable development agenda and the SDGs, it has become essential to look beyond official data. The sustainability information that businesses disclose, whether on their environmental, social or financial impact, can contribute to a more complete picture of progress on the SDGs. Yet, the question remains: How can we include business data on the SDGs within the current systems that measure progress?

As stated in the 2014 report A World that Counts, 'Data are the lifeblood of decision-making and the raw material for accountability'. The UN World Data Forum gathers global actors to discuss the most pressing data challenges facing the world, such as capacity development for better data and the complementarity of different data sources. In the run up to the 2018 UN World Data Forum, we would like to highlight a pilot project we ran in Colombia at the beginning of the year that tries to address some of these challenges and we hope will inspire further action.

Colombia's Departamento Nacional de Planeación (DNP), the country's planning department, decided to try to incorporate business data in its second Voluntary National Review (VNR) that was presented at the UN High Level Political Forum 2018. Together with the UN Development Programme's (UNDP), Business Call to Action, and with technical support from GRI, it looked at an innovative way to unlock the potential of non-government statistical data. The business SDG-related data available through corporate sustainability reporting was mined and aggregated at the national level, enriching the review process on progress on the SDGs and enabling the participation of companies, business associations, civil society and other stakeholders.

Project partners kicked off the initiative by convening a multi-stakeholder committee which included, among others, the Competitive Council for the Private Sector, the Bogota Chamber of Commerce, CEPEI, large national corporations, business and industry networks, the National Statistical Office (DANE) and other relevant national authorities.

The project partners first identified key topics to limit the assessment to a manageable data set. The selection was based on Colombia's priorities, including the national Green Growth Plan, for which business data was already collected but not yet linked to SDG targets, and business indicators, as well as the technical analysis of common indicators of the 88 SDG targets that require the private sector's contribution and the five SDGs under thematic review. GRI provided technical support to subsequently select eight corresponding GRI Standards linked to five SDGs using the Analysis of Goals and Targets, which lists globally recognized indicators for the 169 targets.

The project partners then created an online tool to facilitate the data collection process. Companies and other facilitating organizations at the sub-national level filled in available information directly and through different regional entities. To ensure conformity and alignment, the partners developed methodological notes defining the scope and the expected data.

Data gathering was followed by data validation and analysis, with a multi-actor team from UNDP and DNP. The main findings were presented to the multi-stakeholder committee and were integrated in Colombia's national VNR that was presented at the 2018 HLPF.

Several factors made this endeavor possible and successful. First, there was an auspicious corporate context in Colombia. Most large companies are GRI reporters, which meant aggregating and mining data relying on the global GRI Standards was an easier task than if different reporting frameworks had been in widespread use. Second, the private sector showed a willingness to participate in meeting the SDGs and align with national priorities. Effective partnership was essential for this project, and all key stakeholders came together to realize this effort and asses Colombia's progress on the SDGs.

Acknowledging the unprecedented effort, and in the spirit of learning and continuous improvement, the partners also drafted lessons learned to improve the process and inform other countries. These recommendations included:

1) Improve the reporting process with companies through personalized follow-up mechanisms, facilitating the interpretation of records and their relationship with the company's economic and productive performance.

2) Increase reporting times and the analysis timeframe to address data consistency issues and confirm information with companies.

3) Use standardized data registration mechanisms, such as web-based tools, to reduce the chances of human error in data transcription and to save time in the aggregation process.

4) Have an SDG expert team by theme to improve data interpretation and enable report writing with a technical approach.

5) Strengthen the description of the requested information on each of the indicators, to reduce the risk of wrong or inconsistent reporting due to different interpretations.

More and more, governments are realizing the value of corporate social responsibility and sustainability reporting: the number of VNR reports that mention these items more than doubled, from 11 in 2016 to 27 in 2018. The next step is unlocking the potential of corporate SDGs-related data disclosed through sustainability reporting. To make such data available, governments need to encourage companies to disclose sustainability information, as called for in SDG target 12.6, and then to use this information to assess business contributions and impacts on sustainable development and the SDGs. Only then can we truly reflect on the business contribution to the SDGs, include it in measurement systems, and get a more complete picture of the reality of implementation at the national and global levels.

However, one key challenge remains: what is needed to allow this data to be used by National Statistical Offices in the monitoring of progress on SDGs?

The World Data Forum provides the perfect platform to explore this and other innovative ways to apply data and statistics to measure global progress and inform evidence-based policy decisions on the SDGs. It is a platform that can support discussion, data labs and interactive initiatives to improve the use of data for sustainable development. We would like to encourage all governments and national statistical offices to engage with private sector data as a new complementary source. This, we hope, will also further strengthen partnerships with the business community. We invite you to join our session Impact measurement, SDGs and support to official statistics-- the role of private sector and partnerships (TA1.04) on 22 October at 10.30 in the Ajman Stat Hall. We look forward to engaging with you and exploring how to sharpen this pilot project to harness the valuable data that the private sector has to offer.

Pietro Bertazzi is the head of sustainable development at GRI.

Charlotte Portier is the senior coordinator for sustainable development at GRI.