April 10, 2017

The Data Revolution and the Sustainable Development Goals

Data cords connected to globe

In our next installment on this blog, we will feature an interview with Robert Kirkpatrick, director of the United Nations Global Pulse, a flagship innovation initiative of the United Nations Secretary-General that works to harness data for sustainable development and humanitarian action.

The New Global Goals

Governments are calling for innovation and data-driven development policy at diplomatic tables. In September 2015, 193 UN member governments adopted the 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development, in which are the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that will guide the global development pathway for the next 15 years. High representatives from governments will meet at the UN Headquarters every year, at the High Level Political Forum (HLPF), to check their progress on the implementation of the 2030 Agenda in their own countries.

During the first HLPF in 2016, at which the author of this post attended both the consultation process and the Forum, governments welcomed “enhancing national capacities for evidence-based and data-driven decision-making.” They stressed that “the availability and use of accessible, timely, reliable and high-quality disaggregated data underpins our efforts to leave no one behind,” and called for “further building and strengthening capacities for data collection, disaggregation, dissemination and analysis at all levels.” However, they qualified these goals, specifying that, “global review of the 2030 Agenda will be based primarily on national official data sources.” Now, will relying primarily on national official data sources be enough to reach those goals?

The 2030 Agenda is extraordinarily ambitious. Achieving the new global goals will require all who pursue global development to think and act very differently. It will not be possible to achieve the goals without fully exploring worldwide innovations. Mark Malloch-Brown, former UN Deputy Secretary-General, once commented that while no topic was more popular than reform in the UN, neither governments nor the UN Secretariat understood the scale of change needed. The extent of the change required, he pointed out, ‘‘may take a crisis.’’ These comments, made in 2008, resonate even further today as we have now embarked on a new era of global development. So, just how are we going to achieve the 17 Sustainable Development Goals?

Data Revolution and Sustainable Development

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) ignited a conversation about how we know whether progress is happening, and the role of data systems in tracking progress and providing information for effective policy design. Over the 15 years of the MDGs, the need for real-time data and measurement became apparent as the key indicators were collected through laborious and retrospective household surveys that were as much as five years out-of-date in most countries. And so the contours of the data-to-impact process were not clear. There were cases wherein excellent data was available but had little policy impact. As we look toward the SDGs, the optimism on data is ever high in our radically data-driven world.

Data and information flows are soaring. Just about 15 years ago, there weren’t such remarkable digital flows. According to a research report from the McKinsey Global Institute, these digital flows now exert an even larger impact on GDP growth than centuries-old trade. Individuals are using global digital platforms to learn, find jobs, and work, and build personal or professional networks. Some 900 million people have international connections on social media. Governments working on the new global goals around the world also recognize the explosion in data. The first UN World Data Forum on Sustainable Development Data took place in mid-January 2017. Governments and various professional groups including information technology, geospatial information managers, data scientists, users, and other stakeholders met to intensify cooperation.

Not only businesses but also national security agencies, political advisors, scientists, researchers and more have already tapped into big data to accelerate their progress. While the global development world is now attempting to grab the same opportunities, it has been much slower in this trend thus far, using existing capabilities to gather and analyze data. When pursuing such ambitious long-term targets like the SDGs, measuring progress at frequent intervals and publicizing the successes and shortfalls is essential. It rewards governments that make progress, and keeps laggard ones accountable for their performance and stimulates them to double their efforts for their own benefit and further resource allocation.

Invest in Mobilizing Data for Global Development

The proportion of the world population covered by a 2G mobile-cellular network has now reached more than 95 percent. 3G mobile-broadband coverage is also extending rapidly and into rural areas at the same time; 45 percent of the population around the world had 3G coverage in 2011, and the proportion has grown to 70 percent in just four years. The spread of broadband coverage nearly everywhere in the world, together with the ICT capacities accelerating the digital revolution, allows for a better data system. We can now create an active link between decision-making and service provision. Community health workers supported by smartphone applications log patient information that can go directly to managers to spot disease outbreaks, identify causes of death, find issues in supply chains, make required medical intervention, and so on. In education, although this is just a small example, student and teacher attendance can be recorded more transparently and accurately on a real-time basis; the log data, automatically fed into dashboards, can be used to track progress in key areas and make informed interventions on program failures.

We need two-way investments: one, modernize the practices and methods used by statistical offices; two, tap into the new sources of data in a creative way that can complement or overcome the limits of traditional government statistical data. Without doing both, the scale of the work needed to “leave no one behind” will not be attained.

The views expressed in the Government Innovators Network blog are those of the individual author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, the John F. Kennedy School of Government, or of Harvard University.

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