18 November 2020
Data Experts Discuss How to Harness Non-Official Sources
Photo credit: Rodion Kutsaev/Unsplash
story highlights

A panel discussion during the Virtual UN World Data Forum identified ways to harness statistics produced by non-official sources.

One expert said the SDG indicators that have not yet been populated should be compiled using statistics, as long as an accreditation system can be established.

Another speaker expressed concern that a top-down certification process to legitimize data could simply continue marginalizing civil society input.

During a side event at the recent UN World Data Forum, organized by GeoCensos, experts discussed ways to harness statistics produced by sources other than countries’ national statistical offices (NSOs). These non-official sources include the private sector, civil society, academia, and other research institutions.

Javier Andrés Carranza Torres, Director of GeoCensos, opened the event titled ‘Learning from open geodata platforms that worked in the midst of a pandemic.’ He noted that data experts are concerned about both quality and disaggregation of data in geospatial hubs during the pandemic. He noted that SDG 17 contains targets on partnering with the data community.

Steve MacFeely, Chief Statistician for the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), reminded virtual participants that at the 2018 World Data Forum held in Dubai, UAE, the resulting declaration said the data demands of the 2030 Agenda “require urgent new solutions to leverage the power of new data sources and technologies.” The Dubai Declaration explained this should be done through partnerships among official and non-official sources of data. Realizing that aspiration is the present challenge for the data and statistical community, MacFeely said.

The easiest SDG indicators have been populated; we have to work hard to populate the remaining ones.

He reported on the inadequate state of the SDG indicators, noting that approximately only half of them can be populated, and those are the easiest to populate. “The low-hanging fruit has been picked; now we have to work hard to populate the remaining indicators.” Therefore, SDG indicators should be compiled not just from data but also statistics, as long as an accreditation system can be established.

On sharing non-official data, MacFeely cautioned that an asymmetry could result from pressuring the public sector to share its data while “allowing the private sector to escape” and harvest public data for their own purposes. MacFeely’s presentation was based the second edition of ‘SDG Pulse,’ an UNCTAD report updated in July 2020.

Olga Henker, Data Quality Conformity Organization Body (GCC), highlighted data certification frameworks such as ISO/IEC 25012 or ISO 19115. She said during the pandemic, comprehensive, reliable, and readily available data are needed for business continuity, monitoring and predicting the pandemic’s developments, and accelerating digital transformation. The GCC proposes that unofficial statistics are only used when all official options have been exhausted. She expressed support for the potential certification of unofficial data for use at NSOs, with suggestions including that:

  • “certifications should be supported by previously accredited conformity assessment bodies” as designated by governments and “enriched with” NSO advice; and
  • NSOs help promote a culture of certification, in anticipation of “an imminent data revolution.” She called for democratizing the quality of data both in the product and in the process.

Luca Di Gennaro Splendore, statistical consultant, said the pandemic had disrupted the production of official data. This had yielded lessons: short, timely analysis is more appreciated than large studies. And granular, non-traditional sources can help pinpoint emerging needs. He said the pandemic can lead to the updating of routines, replacing inflexible, official procedures with up-to-date analysis, experimental statistics, and complementary granular data sources.

Beth Timmers, IISD, discussed the role of granular community data in recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic. She said communities are the experts on how shocks affect them. To reconcile the tension about ensuring that community data is high-quality, she pointed to IISD’s Tracking Progress tool. The digital platform collates data that communities have deemed important, meaning that different data sources are used to track the same indicators.

Speakers held an in-depth discussion of how “open data” can include many different kinds of data, including qualitative research, which could be made official through venues such as a third-party certification process. Timmers expressed concern that a top-down certification process to legitimize data could simply continue marginalizing civil society input. The certification must be an inclusive process that engages community organizations, she stressed. An example from Canada is the experience of First Nation groups who say they have not been included in SDG implementation or data collection, and the framework is instead “implemented onto them.”

Providing an NSO perspective, Grace Bediako highlighted Ghana’s ground-breaking use of anonymized and aggregated mobile/cell phone data to help produce official statistics. The data is collected through a public-private partnership with Vodafone Ghana and the Flowminder Foundation, and is useful for providing insights on Ghanaians’ mobility, which relates to planning on public health, disasters, and recently responses to COVID-19.

Enrique Pelaez, CONICET (Argentina), moderated the question-and-answer session.  The session was part of the three-day WDF programme that convened virtually from 19-21 October 2020. In a statement launched at the conclusion of the Forum, participants supported an “evidence-based response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” and noted the demand for data and statistics are greater than ever. They outlined a response that includes:

  • Creating data to leave no one behind by continuing to develop disaggregation in data to mainstream gender equality, and define common standards and tools to ensure that everyone is counted;
  • Developing capacity to modernize data systems not only at the national level, but also at the local and subnational levels, especially among lower-income and more vulnerable countries; and
  • Encouraging the establishment of more data partnerships, whether public-public or public-private, to work on new data sources, tools, and platforms to increase data availability and complement basic statistical infrastructure.

[IISD event page] [Virtual WDF programme] [SDG Knowledge Hub story on WDF outcome]

This article is part of a series from the Leave No one Behind partnership (including the International Civil Society Centre (ICSC)Development Initiatives (DI) and IISD). The series assesses COVID-19’s long-term impacts and efforts to make voices heard and count. The next months will be critical to helping those hardest hit.

Funding for this series is being provided by Robert Bosch Stiftung and Economic and Social Development Canada. If you would like to contribute a story from the front lines of leaving no one behind amid COVID-19, please contact Faye Leone (faye@iisd.org) or Stefan Jungcurt (stefan@iisd.org)

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