By Haoyi Chen, Peter Koblowsky, and Yongyi Min

In early March 2024, chief statisticians from over 100 countries convened in New York for the 55th session of the UN Statistical Commission (UNSC), focusing on debating and establishing statistical standards, partnerships, and capacity building. One of the less familiar topics that was brought to the table was the Copenhagen Framework on Citizen Data. Citizen data, encompassing citizen-generated data, community-driven data, and citizen science data, typically fall outside of official statistics, despite being part of the national data ecosystem. 

Why is it important to bring the work on citizen data to the UN Statistical Commission? 

First, citizen data complement official statistics and can improve the inclusiveness and timeliness of data and generate new insights. As an example, citizen science data helped Ghana on data around marine litter that will be used to inform environmental protection policy in the country. Citizen science projects, which encourage citizens to share photos of floods or natural disasters, offer real-time information on the scale of these events. In Bangladesh, a Community Scorecard approach was applied to measure satisfaction among diverse marginalized groups regarding the reach and quality of public health services. For government, these data represented a useful benchmark targeting communities that are otherwise hard to reach.

Second, bringing together the official statistics community and civil society organizations (CSOs) can help strengthen each other’s capacities, reach, and impact. On the one hand, there is a potential for CSOs to enhance their capacities in terms of data collection, analysis, and use, which will help them achieve their respective mission and vision. On the other hand, CSOs often work with marginalized and other community groups, having the potential to provide complementary insights to official statistics that can help make policies more inclusive and public services more accessible to these communities, which will strengthen government’s overall accountability. Engagement of citizens in data production also sends a strong message on how official statistics should revolutionize data collection to ensure individuals suffering from intersectional disadvantages such as gender, ethnicity, and disability are covered, as demonstrated by Pamela Molina, Executive Director of the World Federation of the Deaf in a side event organized by the Collaborative on Citizen Data

Third, bringing citizens and communities into the official statistics process can foster a sense of ownership and engagement of citizens with societal issues, give citizens agency to have a more direct impact on matters that affect their lives, and encourage citizens to become more actively involved in monitoring and addressing community issues. When citizens contribute to and have access to the data used by governments, it enhances transparency. This accessibility allows citizens to hold public institutions accountable for their actions and decisions, fostering a more open and democratic society.

Lastly, bringing citizen data work to the UN Statistical Commission helps foster trust among various data stakeholders, which contributes to a robust national data ecosystem. Nurturing trust can be achieved by facilitating collaboration at the national level between national statistical offices (NSOs) and CSOs. In a recent workshop in Kenya that brought together the National Bureau of Statistics, the Kenya SDG Forum representing more than 350 CSOs, and the national human rights institute, a candid conversation and debate took place around defining indigeneity, building on each other’s areas of expertise and existing data sources and using those data to improve the living conditions of indigenous communities. Carrying out similar processes in other countries will be key for establishing an enabling working environment between NSOs and CSOs around the globe.

What is the Copenhagen Framework on Citizen Data and why do we develop it?

The Copenhagen Framework provides a scope that helps conceptualize and agree on the different ways citizens can play a role in data and supports formulating action points for the citizen data and statistical communities moving forward.

The Framework consists of four sections: (a) an operational definition that puts citizen engagement and a rights-driven approach at its center, throughout the data value chain; (b) principles of citizen data that serve as a framework for data governance, management, and protection, in the context of organizations that collect and use citizen data; (c) a set of elements that create an enabling environment for the implementation of the framework on citizen data and its associated principles; and (d) a roadmap for the Framework’s implementation.

How did the official statistical communities respond to the Framework? 

The response to the Copenhagen Framework from the official statistical community has been very positive. Following the introduction of the agenda item, several countries expressed support for the Framework and set high expectations for the Collaborative’s work. For example,

Kenya welcomed the Copenhagen Framework and recommended “extensive sensitization of stakeholders in the data ecosystem on the Framework.”

“As we approach the deadline of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development,” India emphasized, “it becomes increasingly critical to accelerate the generation of citizen generated data (CGD) and prioritize the collection of CGD to inform evidence-based policies and interventions.” It further requested “the Commission consider extending its role from the Framework development to the development of guidance on data collection and use.”

Somalia, on behalf of the African Group, supported “the mechanisms and inclusive approach in enhancing the trust, data quality, and partnerships in citizen generated data practices.” Italy “agreed on the roadmap for its implementation, the work of the Collaborative on Citizen Data, and its workplan for 2024-2025 and beyond.”

The Deputy National Statistician from the UK’s Office for National Statistics commended the power of citizen engagement in the future data ecosystem, highlighting that such data ecosystem “should be built on a blend of data sources, leveraging the passion and empowerment of people who are usually not counted but wish to describe and define themselves in their own way, and play back to them to show their value of their community, for their community.”

What are the next steps? 

Over the next 10-12 months, under the guidance of the Collaborative on Citizen Data, the community will test and pilot the Copenhagen Framework in countries to validate its effectiveness with ground-level citizen data initiatives. Considering these experiences and learnings, a revised and tested Framework will be submitted to the UNSC’s 56th session in March 2025. Implementation of the Framework will also support the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development at the national, local, and community level. 

We hope that the collective effort on citizen data makes the monitoring and implementation of the 2030 Agenda more inclusive and that citizen data are anchored in the UN Pact for the Future. A vision for sustainable development that embraces more inclusive data generation, monitoring, and decision-making processes is a key steppingstone towards the creation of solutions, policies, and services that truly leave no one behind.

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Haoyi Chen is Coordinator, Inter-Secretariat Working Group on Household Surveys, and Lead, Citizen Data and Data Integration, UN Statistics Division.

Peter Koblowsky is Head of Leave No One Behind Partnership, International Civil Society Centre.

Yongyi Min is Chief, SDG Monitoring Section, UN Statistics Division.