UN World Data Forum reaching for new heights in Dubai

As data leaders from around the world gather in the city of the Burj Khalifa, the UN World Data Forum itself is reaching for new heights, both in the generation of new collaborations and outcomes.

When we embarked on the first World Data Forum in Cape Town, the experience was a new and unique journey. The official statistical system was just starting to establish a dialogue with other data communities in the private sector, scientific and academic communities and the broader civil society.

As we descend on Dubai for the 2018 Forum -- just 21 months after Cape Town -- we see that progress has been made -- beyond even the initial expectations of delegates of the UN Statistical Commission when they set the UN World Data Forum in motion in 2015. So many data partnerships are underway; so much work has advanced. I look forward to seeing this evidence in Dubai, and the 2018 Forum programme hints at some interesting new initiatives and partnerships.

The programme reflects an immense effort by the session organizers and the Forum's Programme Committee to bring together representatives from diverse data communities in nearly every session, encouraging cross-sectoral communication and the breaking down of silos. This is sure to generate vibrant discussions and even greater collaboration.

While there is broad continuity in the thematic areas from Cape Town to Dubai, as major issues continue to be refined and initiatives are advanced, some areas have exciting new developments and actors joining. For data journalism, two competitions have reached out to engage new participants: one, organized by the Brown Media Institute at Columbia University School of Journalism with the UN Statistics Division, has invited data journalists to partner with national statistical offices to develop new tools to better inform the public, with the winner to present his or her work in Dubai. The second, a press fellowship competition organized by Data2X, will provide seven journalists the opportunity to attend the Forum and will provide these journalists with access to exclusive briefings.

Another interesting initiative that gives space to new ideas is an online data visualization contest for students, sponsored by Google, the UN Foundation and the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data, with the winning entry being announced at the Forum.

The programme also clearly shows that at the 2018 Forum, many sessions are focusing on implementing what has been agreed or initiated -- moving from inspiration and good intentions to getting the data world to collaborate in new ways for better results.

One positive example is the Federated Information System for the SDGs, an initiative that we at the UN Statistics Division have spearheaded in partnership with Esri. Building on the dialogue that began in Cape Town on leveraging the potential of GIS technology to integrate and communicate data and statistics on the SDGs, UNSD and Esri quickly joined forces and in May 2017 launched a small research initiative looking to strengthen the ability of National Statistical Offices and Geospatial Information Systems to share data, knowledge and best practices related to the 2030 Agenda. After receiving full support by the official statistical community at the UN Statistical Commission and the Committee of Experts on Global Geospatial Information Management, the Federated Information System for the SDGs is now entering its third phase, with a larger number of countries about to join. Thanks to its strong focus on open standards and data interoperability, this initiative will allow different data communities to share SDG data and innovative ideas for its analysis and communication.

This illustrates an important point: the UN World Data Forum is not a one-off event.

It is part of a dynamic UN-led process, with many stops along the way. The Forum serves as a place to take stock every two years and to ask the hard questions: where do we stand and how can we do better?

While many exciting things are happening within existing resources, when it comes to implementation, the issue on many people's minds is financing. We all are aware of the enormous data gaps that need to be filled --44 per cent of countries worldwide do not have comprehensive birth and death registration data; 77 developing countries do not have poverty data; just to name a few gaps highlighted in OECD's 2017 Data for Development report. A lack of resources and capacity is a key constraint.

How to fill the funding gap will be one question at the heart of the 2018 UN World Data Forum. Aid for statistics needs to increase, but despite the unprecedented attention on the importance of data and statistics for development, the funding gaps are still significant.

It is widely recognized that there is a need not just for more support for data and statistics, but also for better quality financing, reducing duplication, targeting investments where needs are greatest, ensuring everyone's needs are counted, aligning this financing to country priorities for data, and providing more relevant and sustainable statistical capacity development.

The Cape Town Global Action Plan for Sustainable Development Data, launched at the first Forum, sets out sound guiding principles for prioritizing investments. The discussions at the UN World Data Forum 2018 will help shape the way forward for all data communities on how to implement the Cape Town Global Action Plan. Consultations so far have shown that the implementation and the delivery of the necessary additional funds should be demand-driven and overseen by countries, with national statistical authorities setting priorities through an appropriate governance system that brings together countries and key development partners.

In the run-up to Dubai, data and development leaders are looking at many options. I hope that we will use the opportunity of the Forum to make a constructive leap forward, to show that we are ready to stand behind what we all believe: that better data is needed to build a better world.

Francesca Perucci is Chief of the Development Data and Outreach Branch of the Statistics Division, UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, and is a key figure in the UN World Data Forum secretariat. She has worked intensively on the MDG and SDG indicator process and oversees the UN's annual statistical SDG Report.