The road to better data

Paris21 road mapToday’s post is by Johannes Jütting, Manager of the Partnership in Statistics for Development in the 21st Century (PARIS21), which promotes the better use and production of statistics in developing countries. PARIS21’s new report, A Road Map for a Country-led Data Revolution, sets out a detailed programme to ensure developing countries can monitor the Sustainable Development Goals and benefit from technological and other innovations in data collection and dissemination.

Tradition tells us that more than 3,000 years ago, Moses went to the top of Mount Sinai and came back down with 10 commandments. When the world’s presidents and prime ministers go to the top of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) mountain in New York late this summer they will come down with not 10 commandments but 169. Too many?

Some people certainly think so. “Stupid development goals,” The Economist said recently. It argued that the 17 SDGs and roughly 169 targets should “honour Moses and be pruned to ten goals”. Others disagree. In a report for the Overseas Development Institute, May Miller-Dawkins, warned of the dangers of letting practicality “blunt ambition”. She backed SDGs with “high ambition”.

The debate over the “right” number of goals and targets is interesting, important even. But it misses a key point: No matter how many goals and targets are finally agreed, if we can’t measure their real impact on people’s lives, on our societies and on the environment, then they risk becoming irrelevant.

Unfortunately, we already know that many developing countries have problems compiling even basic social and economic statistics, never mind the complex web of data that will be needed to monitor the SDGs. A few examples: In 2013, about 35% of all live births were not officially registered worldwide, rising to two-thirds in developing countries. In Africa, just seven countries have data on their total number of landholders and women landholders, and none have data from before 2004. Last but not least, fast-changing economies and associated measurement challenges mean we are not sure today if we have worldwide a billion people living in extreme poverty, half a billion or more than a billion.

Why does this matter? Without adequate data, we cannot identify the problems that planning and policymaking need to address. We also cannot judge if governments and others are meeting their commitments. As a report from the Centre for Global Development notes, “Data […] serve as a ‘currency’ for accountability among and within governments, citizens, and civil society at large, and they can be used to hold development agencies accountable.”

So data matters. Despite this, blank spaces persist in the statistics of many developing countries. And they persist even at a time when the world is experiencing a “data revolution” – a rising deluge of data matched by ever-increasing demand for data.

Despite the challenges, we are optimistic that all countries, including the poorer ones, can make quick, dramatic progress in meeting their data challenges. Firstly, there is not only a growing awareness of the problems countries are facing but also a growing willingness to do something about it. Statistical offices in almost 40 developing countries have signed up to our Data Declaration, in which they state that “the time is now to bring the data revolution to everyone, everywhere”.

Second, new technologies are already helping to revolutionise the world of data. PARIS21’s Innovations Inventory has compiled hundreds of ways in which technology is making it easier and less costly to collect data and providing new sources of data, like “big data”. Examples abound, from NGO to private sector initiatives. As part of its Data for Development (D4D) challenge, Orange Senegal opened up its mobile-phone call-log data for researchers to generate insights into health, transportation, demographics, income inequality, and more. Another truly “Big Idea” comes from Restless Development, a youth-led development agency that equips young people with knowledge, skills, and platforms necessary to effectively interpret data in order to mobilise citizens to take action.

Third, we are optimistic because we want to build on what is already there – existing national statistical systems. Clearly, many are far from ready to join the data revolution; a colleague recalls visiting one national statistical office that couldn’t pay its power bill and had to negotiate with a neighbour to string an extension cord from his home to the office. That may be an extreme example, but other challenges – including technology gaps, shortages of trained staff, weak data dissemination and poor relations with users – are all too common. Nevertheless, national statistical agencies are the only entities with the expertise and legal frameworks to play the lead role in collecting, processing and disseminating data. It is on them that the data revolution for development for sustainable development must be built.

Of course, our Road Map for a Country-led Data Revolution is only a start. Much else needs to happen. This includes designing pilot projects, finding better ways to integrate new sources of data in existing national systems and – unsurprisingly – finding extra funding. But here again we are optimistic. We don’t accept that the cost of monitoring the SDGs will be “crippling”. With our colleagues in the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network, we have calculated that additional donor funding of $200 million a year, matched by a similar rise in domestic funding, would enable the 77 IDA countries (“The World Bank’s Fund for the Poorest”) to successfully monitor their progress the SDGs – yes, even the proposed 17 goals and 169 targets!

We don’t yet know if that will turn out to be the final number of SDG “commandments”. But here’s something we do know – developed and developing countries are on the cusp of a huge and dramatic change in how they collect and disseminate. True, unlike Moses, we don’t live in a time of miracles. But with the aid of a clear road map, strong political will and “miraculous” technologies, we really are much closer to the promised land of better data than we realise.

Useful links

Informing a Data Revolution – PARIS21

Watch the launch of A Road Map for a Country-led Data Revolution at the Cartagena Data Festival on Monday 20 April from 1700 hours UTC (noon in Cartagena, 1pm in New York, 6pm in London, 7pm in Paris, 2am in Tokyo).

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  1. Luc Lapointe - 25/04/2015 Reply

    Dear Johanness

    So much to write about this blog and the ambitious goals in the Paris21 document that you have produced. I also saw that a few bloggers have written about the event. The event itself is interesting in the context of where it was held (Cartagena Colombia).

    I think it’s important to note that we are also working on Big Data but in the context of information that would be useful for citizens …. engaged in the process. I think it would have been interesting to see if development advocate would have chosen the same destination knowing that only $5 of every $100 spent by guest / traveler actually stay in the destination. The rest leaks out and does absolutely noting for the local population. On Friday (April 24th) I was reading your blog and on the radio (here in Cali Colombia) they were actually talking about the lack of access to water (for locals) in Cartagena..I am sure none of the guest were actually affected by this.

    Now back to the document you have produced. I think the problem lies in the country themselves to cooperate around data. Not sure if anyone presented on the data situation in Colombia when it comes to social investment but there are at least five different mapping and none of them collect the data in the same format, it’s impossible to consolidate the data onto one map or one database, and there is strong competition by departments to develop their own mapping using different technology and methodology. From international cooperation, donors, private sectors, foundations, and tourism — there are incredible sources of information that are currently competing with each other instead of working on that “road” to the data revolution.

    It doesn’t take a data engineer to realize that the data collected is “cute” and does little to inform citizens about the impact of such investments. It makes cute maps with dots and big numbers.

    When it comes to local data, we have seen duplication and fragmentation at all level. Three or four different departments knocking at the same door and if you add university research…pure duplication and little strategic thinking around of the data that is being collected.

    Revolution definitely sounds stronger when it comes to wording but I believe that a simple well-planned strategy around data could go a long way — cooperation might be a better word.

    We are currently socializing a private strategy in Colombia that looks at meaningful data and how it can support local governments to make better decisions and attract targeted / impactful investment.

    I come from a country (Canada) that is extremely organized when it comes to data and information but at the end of the day — does Joe Plumber understand the data? I think that all governments should be evaluated on three simple indicators and these indicators should be on the front page of every government agencies

    1) Social Deficit
    2) Infrastructure Deficit
    3) Environmental Deficit

    If there are no progress on these three indicators – then the government has missed managed tax dollars.

    One last note…data is fine but it’s also important for people to understand how governments measure success. Government can’t continue celebrating success with a $1.25 poverty line.

    Once again ..great document! Hopefully it will inspire governments to install cooperation on the collection of data.

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