The Thematic Research Network on Data and Statistics (TReNDS) hosted an expert discussion on data for development on the sidelines of the 51st session of the UN Statistical Commission. TReNDS is an initiative of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN).

The breakfast event took place on 3 March 2020, and featured remarks by several experts from the TReNDS network. The discussion highlighted as a key issue the lack of data currently available on SDG indicators, saying significant gaps exist in data timeliness, represented geographies, and other factors. 

For example, poverty data on two-thirds of the population of Sub-Saharan Africa is based on surveys that were done before the SDGs were agreed in 2015; there are currently 25.4 million refugees in the world, who go uncounted in national statistics; and current figures for global ambient air pollution mortality estimates are from 2012, according to statistics cited by TReNDS. Shaida Badiee, Open Data Watch, said that for countries to build a foundation to improve such data gaps, there is a need for “collaborative systems” such as the upcoming World Data Forum.

Speakers noted that citizen-generated data is being hailed as one of the “next big things” to help monitor the SDGs in real-time. In addition, Earth observations and satellite imagery can help monitor the SDGs, for example by tracking pandemics like COVID-19. They can overcome the challenges of timeliness, reliability, and logistical/geographic challenges to using traditional data methods in hard to reach areas. Speakers stressed that these methods are not a substitute, but a complement to traditional data methods, noting that census and household surveys help to validate results from newer data methods.

Participants added that new institutional frameworks, including legal guidelines, are needed to manage the influx of new technologies. Lisa Bersales, the first National Statistician of the Philippines, called for quality-assurance frameworks for big data and citizen-generated data. Gero Carletto, World Bank, noted that risks arise from the lack of standards for integrating different data sources.

The speakers also advised caution about the “recent boom” in public-private data partnerships, suggesting that they must be managed carefully. Fredy Rodriguez, Cepei, explained the need for partnerships to establish an effective institutional framework in order to share data and determine how shared data will be used.

Finally, the discussion drew attention to the evolving role of the National Statistics Offices (NSOs). Experts said NSOs’ mandate has evolved significantly in the past few years; no longer just producers of data, they are now responsible for coordinating a broad data ecosystem of entities across government, civil society, and the private sector, and for brokering new partnerships to produce, clean, compile, and analyze data to produce official statistics. In effect, NSOs have become “data stewards.”

Speakers said that placing NSOs “at the center of the data ecosystem” and empowering them to collaborate with third parties can help bridge gaps among parts of the government, and use data more effectively for policy and decision-making. In addition, appointing a national data coordinator or Chief Data Officer within NSOs can help to attract more resources, political support, partnerships, and data sharing. 

SDSN TReNDS noted the upcoming release of a report on the importance of gridded population data to help monitor the SDGs. The executive summary of the publication, titled ‘Leaving No One Off the Map: A Guide for Gridded Population Data for Sustainable Development, is available here, to be followed by the full report in April 2020. [SDG Knowledge Hub sources]