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Funding The Data Revolution

By Claire Melamed and Grant Cameron

A revolution starts with an idea, but to become real, it has to move quickly to a practical proposition about getting stuff done.  And getting things done needs money.  If the ideas generated last year, in the report of the UN Secretary General’s Independent Expert Advisory Group and elsewhere, about how to improve data production and use are to become real, then they will need investments.  It’s time to start thinking about where the money to fund the data revolution might come from, and how it might be spent.

Getting funding for investment in data won’t be easy.  As hard-pressed statistical offices around the world know to their cost, it’s tough to persuade governments to put money into counting things instead of, say, teaching children or paying pensions.  But unless the current excitement about data turn into concrete commitments, it will all fade away once the next big thing comes along, leaving little in the way of lasting change.

So what is needed? Two things.  Firstly, there must be new money for investments in data.  But, critically, a second thing is needed too – the money must be spent in ways that enable and incentivise the changes that are needed to take advantage of the revolutionary possibilities in the data landscape. The IEAG report laid out four areas in which change is needed: capacity and resources, technology and innovation, principles and standards, and partnerships and leadership.  New money, used well, can support all these and help to drive the changes that are needed.   In particular, four new funding streams might help to drive progress in the right direction:

1.     Funding for official statistics.  As the IEAG said, ‘strengthening national capacities will be the essential test of any data revolution’. Building on the idea of ‘country compacts’, new money could be used to support change at the national level, supporting dialogue between data providers and data users, enabling new and useful partnerships between public sector, private sector and civil society, investing in the technological infrastructure, and rewarding measurable improvements in the production and use of high quality data.

2.     Funding for innovation. While official statistics will be the core, ignoring the potential for innovation to solve problems, create new possibilities, and leapfrog over current technologies, will in the long run be a waste of resources.  Innovation is happening, and it is important that funds are available to ensure that there are incentives to innovate in the public interest as well as for the private sector. A starting point could to be to explore how new innovations could help to fill gaps in data for the new Sustainable Development Goals, along the lines of the ‘SDG data labs’ proposed by the IEAG report.

3.     Funding for data literacy and use. A dedicated funding stream for civil society groups, to enable them to experiment with the collection and use of data, to strengthen data literacy and build capacity, and in the end to drive increased demand for and use of data will be a key part of using the data revolution to achieve long term change in government policies and in the relationship between governments and citizens.

4.     Funding for partnership and leadership.  Most of the action, initiatives, and financing required to drive the data revolution will happen at the national and local levels.  But, as the IEAG report makes clear, global level partnerships and leadership can help to consolidate and share emerging lessons and develop standards, can help to broker necessary partnerships, can help to develop regional and global technology infrastructure, and can help to showcase best practice and encourage innovation.  This too, needs resources, and political support to drive it.

Good data, used well, is not cheap. But this is the moment to lay down the foundations for a future of high quality, accessible, and useful data.  Good data will be essential for both monitoring and achieving the new sustainable development goals – and so funding for data could, and probably should, be a part of the discussion at the Third International Conference on Financing for Development to be held in Addis Ababa in July this year.  If governments, companies and civil society rise to the challenge of investing in data in ways that drive change and improvement, then that could be the moment when we know if the ‘data revolution’ will be more than just a good idea.

Claire Melamed is Secretary of the Data Revolution Independent Expert Advisory Group (IEAG) 

Grant Cameron is a manager of the Development Data Group at the World Bank. 



Making the data revolution a gender data revolution

By Shaida Badiee and Claire Melamed

If there was a competition for the most repeated and least reliable statistic in the development business, then the oft-repeated ‘fact’ that 70% of the world’s poor are women might just win it. It might be true, it might not. But, shockingly and surprisingly given how often it’s used, there’s not really any way of knowing if it’s true.

worldfish-data-entry-bangladeshThe ubiquity and uncertainty of the 70% figure tells us two things about the data revolution. Firstly, that people want good data on gender – the over use of this dubious statistic indicates a demand out there that needs to be filled. Secondly, that at the moment we don’t have it – in many countries we don’t even know how many women there are, let alone how poor, or how healthy, or how well educated they are, or what work they do, or how they spend their time. The data revolution must be gendered.

Gendering the data revolution means thinking about gender at two levels. Firstly, of course the data itself. In the IEAG report, we pointed out how ‘gender inequality and the undervaluing of women’s activities and priorities in every sphere has been replicated in the statistical record’.

Currently, data suffer from several gender blind spots. Firstly, too often gender simply isn’t recorded. This makes data much less useful than it could be. Knowing the number of people in a country living under $1.25 a day, for example, is one thing. But if, say 80% of those people are women, then that implies a very different set of problems and solutions to if the split is 50-50 between women and men. If most recorded violence is domestic violence against women, this implies very different policies to if violence is mainly men attacking other men. Gender disaggregated data is needed to make women visible and to make good policy. In this respect, gender is just one of many blind spots in much of the data that are produced – numbers on disability, or ethnicity, for example, are also often lacking but are essential for diagnosing and solving the inequalities and exclusion that drive poverty.

It’s not just women themselves who are invisible. Some of the issues most important to their lives are also uncounted and therefore invisible in policy agendas. Labour market statistics designed by women, for example, would almost certainly take into account time spent on domestic work. Surveys in Kenya, Mozambique and Liberia, for example, found that over half of all women cited childcare responsibilities as a constraint on them achieving their livelihood ambitions. In Kenya the figure was over 80 per cent.

Not measuring the realities of the working lives of half the population will mean worse employment policy. Attempts to increase productivity through, for example, offering workers more training, will be of no use to people whose time is already unacceptably squeezed between the different types of work they are required to do. Employment policy using data collected with a gender lens looks different in significant ways – and the same is true of other areas.

Collecting data that more accurately reflects the experiences of women, and that provides policy makers with the raw materials for better, more gender sensitive, policy, is one part of the gender data revolution. But there is a second – putting data in the hands of women themselves.

The data revolution is not for just more data about people – it’s also more data for people – putting data and information in the hands of women themselves, so they have the tools to demand accountability. In many countries, women have less education, and, when they have the chance to specialise, are less likely to do maths, economics or computing than their male counterparts. If new technology is one of the defining characteristics of the data revolution then women are lagging behind there too – in Africa, Asia and Latin America women’s mobile phone ownership is less than men’s, often a lot less.

How can the data revolution be a gender data revolution? There are two priorities

  • Women need to become more visible in data. This means collecting more data, through well-functioning civil registration systems, it means disaggregating all data by gender as a matter of course, and it means collecting data on the things that matter most to women’s lives.
  • Women need to become active users of data. Many already are. But data literacy programmes must make a special effort to reach out to girls and women, compensating for the often unstated social norms that reserve maths, computing and similar disciplines for boys and men.

There is much hype and hope around the data revolution. For it to be made real, the revolution needs initiatives like Data 2x, showing, again and again, that without paying attention to half the world’s population, the hype will be just hype and the hope will not be realised. The data revolution must be gendered, can be gendered, and will be gendered.

image: A woman enters data in a logbook, Bangladesh (CC Worldfish)

The week after the revolution…still counting.

By Dr Claire Melamed, Independent Expert Advisory Group Secretary

It’s just over a week since we launched ‘A World that Counts’.   The day itself went by in a flash – from the (very) early morning skype calls, via a press conference at the UN Spokesperson’s briefing, to the 11th hour arrival of the printed reports and the moment of actually handing over the report to the UN Secretary-General. The day was rounded out with a packed briefing with UN member states, and a reception in New York showcasing the global data revolution in action.

So that was that.  Now what?   As we say ourselves, ‘revolutions do not begin with reports’, and the same is true of press conferences and parties.  What matters is what happens over the next weeks and months as the ideas and proposals in the report start to percolate through into the thinking and actions of those who have the power to create change.  How is it going so far?

Secretary-General Meets Co-Chairs of the Secretary-General’s Independent Expert Advisory Group on the Date Revolution for Sustainable Development.One week on

Well, firstly we’ve had great deal of interest in the report, with over 5,000 people downloading or reading it online so far, and higher demand than we can meet for physical copies from UN missions and IEAG members hosting their own data revolution events.

There have been at least 25 blog posts and articles written about the report over the past few days. I expect there are more to come, but one week on seems a useful moment to summarise the responses so far to A World That Counts.

We’ve had a lot of political support for the report, with  warm words for the report from the South African ambassador to the UN, arguing strongly that action should be taken to, as he put it ‘end the scandal of invisibility’.  The Tanzanian mission was also supportive, calling the report ‘timely and compelling’, and saying ‘its relevance cannot be overstated’.  The Peruvian, Brazilian and Mexican missions also welcomed the report, agreed it was very useful, and the Mexican mission in particular wanted us to get straight on with the idea of creating SDG data labs to start working out how to measure and monitor new goals.  Many others have said to us privately how much they like the report and support the recommendations.

The central message of ’A World that Counts’, about the huge inequalities in data availability and use between countries, people, and public and private sectors, were well represented in the press coverage:  in the Financial Times and the Economist, and in Corriere della Serra.

Mostly civil society has been supportive – though inevitably many people wanted us to go further.  We all welcome this – it’s important that people keep raising the level of ambition.  There’s still a long way to go and this is just the beginning.

Most of the criticism was directed at the short consultation period – our explanation (and apology!) for that is here.  There is also an interesting debate developing on two issues – the first is the relative role of individuals and organisations in using data for accountability.  Some criticised the report’s focus on data for people in general, arguing that it is civil society organisations that are really in the best position to make use of data, while others, in contrast, wanted us to talk more about increasing people’s capacity to use and collect data.  A second emerging debate  concerns the relative weight that should be given to international processes and national level organisations as the drivers for change – is it right to focus on the SDGs as the opportunity, or should the report have talked more about a broader set of national level opportunities and processes?

The organisations that work in the area of transparency and open data varied in their responses to the reports’ approach to standard setting.  For some, it was the aspect of the report they particularly welcomed, while others thought that we should have gone further.

The group and the secretariat are all delighted at the interest and debate that the report has generated.  The discussion – and the disagreement in particular – is how ideas are tested, and refined, and improved.

But the talk, however invigorating, is not the final indicator of success.  Success will come with action not with words.  This is the next phase. Watch this space.

Top image: The Independent Expert Advisory Group meet with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to handover their report on a data revolution for sustainable development.
Second image: IEAG Co-chair presents the report to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon

The Data Revolution for Human Development

07 November 2014
By Selim Jahan

Data Revolution

A World That Counts, the report by the UN Secretary General’s Data Revolution Group, was released yesterday. And it might come as no surprise that the report has strong links with UNDP’s Human Development Report Office: Eva Jespersen, our Deputy Director, was a member of the Independent Expert Advisory Group that prepared it, as was Haishan Fu who is now with the World Bank but used to be our chief statistician. Moreover Enrico Giovannini, the co-chair of the group is also a good friend to this office and one of our key advisors.

The report contains much that is important to global development. But what, I have been pondering, might the data revolution mean for human development and human development reporting in particular? Three ideas occur immediately.

First, this office understands very well the importance of data for both decision-making and analytical debate. The Human Development Index (HDI) is a remarkable example of the power a simple measure can wield to reframe debate towards genuine development outcomes, and away from a singular monetary measure of progress such as per capita income. But while the HDI has been a success we have never claimed that it is a perfect encapsulation of human development. The HDI reflects just three basic aspects of human development – a long, healthy and creative life, knowledge, and a decent standard of living. Now, in a more data rich world one could mount a strong argument for the index also to include so much more that is important to people: measures of voice, equality, sustainability, security, freedom and dignity would all help paint a richer picture of human development. But such data are not yet available in most countries. At least not yet. I hope the data revolution will change that.

Second, looking beyond the global Human Development Reports, I would like to remind you that UNDP has been involved in the production of some 700 national human development reports at the country level. These reports, which are country-led and usually produced in collaboration with national governments, have tackled a myriad of topics through a human development lens at the national level. And they always are built on data, often with disaggregation and innovative analysis. Of course such evidence-based analysis is vital to ensuring the reports’ robustness and usefulness. But I believe that the conversations about what data to use, that are a key part of the process of analysis and writing a report, are often also beneficial to human development. When handled well, and involving many stakeholders, they can develop capacity within a country, provide a platform for democratic dialogues and “make the business of government easier”, as a2013 report from Germany’s Bertelsmann Foundation argued. The data revolution has the potential to enrich such conversations – and the ensuring reports – enormously.

graph 2

Third, and most pressingly, the data revolution is already having a direct impact on human development. Remember that human development has been defined as “expanding the choices of people to lead lives they value”. Access to good information is an important part of expanding our choices. Not only does it enable citizens to better hold their leaders accountable, but it can help all of us to take better decisions in our day to day lives that can be very important: which school to send our children to, which hospital to visit if we fall ill, where to look for work, and so on. But, just as with any valuable resource, access to good information is not equally distributed around the world. In many places the available data range from poor to non-existent. But, even when good data are available, many people lack the basic skills to access or understand it. This has to change. And so I am pleased that the report pays considerable attention to the principles that should underpin the revolution so it benefits all rather than create a data-elite.

I am reminded of a quotation from Eric Hoffer, the American moral philosopher, who pointed out that “We used to think that revolutions are the cause of change. Actually it is the other way around: change prepares the ground for revolution.” The change that inspired the data revolution is clearly happening. And so what is important now, as this report rightly points out, is that we make sure that the coming revolution leads to the world having the right information, at the right time, to build accountability and make good decisions and so improve lives.

Selim Jahan is the Director of UNDP Human Development Report Office. This blog post originally appeared on the Human Development Report website

‘A World That Counts: Mobilising The Data Revolution for Sustainable Development’ report by the Expert Advisory Group on a Data Revolution for Sustainable Development (IEAG)

Top image: Secretary-General reads A World That Counts at handover meeting on 6th Nov 2014

A Rights-based Revolution?

using a mobile


As data become more central to sustainable development, the immense scope for data to empower people is becoming apparent.  But alongside this opportunity are clear risks, as people around the world question the accessibility and privacy implications of the new world of data.  At the heart of issues like these—both the potential and the risks— are rights.  Some members of the panel have been asking: what would a rights-based approach to the data revolution entail?

using a mobileWe know we are not alone in asking these questions.  The panel’s initial consultations revealed a shared concern for data-related rights.  Indeed, around the world, issues of rights and data are being hotly debated by citizens, legislative bodies, civil society, and the private sector.  As we attempt to map the landscape of rights and data, we therefore seek your help!

If you have thoughts, expertise, or concrete examples on the following set of questions, please share with the panel by commenting below or by emailing them to with the subject line “rights-based data revolution.”

How do rights intersect with the process of collecting, analyzing and disseminating data?

Initial consultations have resulted in the following set of rights related to data.  What is missing?  Which rights should be prioritized in the context of the Panel’s report?

  • Right to an identity (right to be counted)
  • Right to privacy (in Europe: right to be forgotten)
  • Right to participation
  • Freedom of expression/ speech
  • Ownership: right to own your personal data
  • Right to access data about you (re-use, sale of data)
  • Principles of consent
  • Right to due process (how data is used, ie. how to regulate the algorithm)
  • Protection from discriminatory uses of data
  • Right to non-discrimination and equality (how data hides or shows inequalities among subgroups of the population)
What existing rights regulation, policies, or frameworks could be applied to data for development?

This might include frameworks from other sectors, ie. the right to be counted in the Convention on the Rights of the Child; or from other fields, ie. frameworks for ethical use of DNA data.  What gaps should be highlighted in the report, ie. areas where “new data” require altogether new norms, frameworks, and policies for a rights-based approach to the data revolution?

How can data empower people?

Many advocate for an SDG monitoring framework that is participatory and empowering to citizens.  Can data provide voice?  What IEAG recommendations would ensure that data support the right to participation, both in terms of data collection and data access?

Statistical averages can hide inequalities but granular data can infringe on privacy.

As decision-makers use data to target policies and programs, data needs to be disaggregated in different ways—for example by gender, geography, age and income level— to ensure we understand the circumstances of different segments of the population.  The more granular the data, the more powerful the potential to address the needs of all.  But there is a concern that such disaggregation might infringe on people’s right to privacy. What recommendation should the IEAG make to reconcile this dilemma?

What are we missing?

Please tell us any other thoughts you have on a rights-based framework for the data revolution.


Carmen Barroso is the Regional Director, International Planned Parenthood Federation, Western Hemisphere Region.
 Katell Le Goulven is the Chief of Policy Planning at UNICEF.
IMAGE: Using the u-report self-reporting mobile tool (UNICEF)

You Say You Want A Revolution

a mural of the famous beatles lyrics

a mural of the famous beatles lyricsLast year the United Nations Secretary General’s High Level Panel Report on the Post-2015 Development Agenda called for a “data revolution”.

“You say you want a revolution” sang John Lennon. “Well you know, we all want to change the world”. The Beatles may have been singing about the political protests of the 1960s but their song was echoed in some of the reactions to the High Level Panel’s call. No one is against the need for more – and more reliable – data to inform development analysis, monitoring and policy making. Indeed, the call for better data has been a mantra for many years. But a number of voices asked what a revolution would look like and to what purpose? They noted that, in some countries at least, plenty of data are collected but not used. The challenge is also about creating a “data liberation” and stimulating a greater demand for – and capacity to use – data.

And so the United Nations Secretary General formed an Independent Advisory Expert Group (IAEG) on “Data revolution for development”. Our group has been asked to craft a framework on what the “data revolution for development” would mean in practice, what institutional and governance implications this would entail and what are the funding implications. Specifically, our Group has been asked to consider how to fill data gaps and strengthen national statistical capacities. We have also been asked to consider what new opportunities might be afforded from both innovation and new data – including Big Data – and how this might complement existing statistical systems. How, we are asking, can data best support the sustainable development goals process, and strengthen accountability across the world?

This is a challenging task. Even more challenging is our timeline: we have been asked to report by the beginning of November, and last week the group held its first meetings in New York and consulted with a wide range of people from Civil Society.

It is also an important task, particularly for those with an interest in human development. Data has always been fundamental to United Nations Development Programme’s human development reporting. The reports have prided themselves on ensuring that their analysis and recommendations were based on reliable data, while the reports are also a key custodian of development data, with the Human Development Index (HDI) the most famous data item.

Human development is much broader than the measures within the HDI. Income, longevity and knowledge (measures of which together comprise the HDI) are essential components of human development but by no means the only components. Participation, voice and freedom, particularly empowerment and agency; human security; equity; and sustainability are all also fundamental to human development. These facets are fundamental perhaps. But they are often not easy to measure, both

  • conceptually – how could one measure generalised empowerment for example?; and
  • statistically – how could one accurately measure change in biodiversity when so much is unknown about so many species?

Can a data revolution really help? Our answer, so far at least, is a cautious – a very cautious – “yes” to both areas.

Much has already been said about Big Data and our Group is paying close attention to it. As is now well known the world is creating enormous and unprecedented amounts of data. Even in 2010 (when much less data was being produced than today), Google chief Eric Schmidt argued that the globe was creating as much data every two days as had been created between the dawn of civilization and 2003! Citizens, businesses and public and private institutions are the engine of this process, providing data on just about anything imaginable. In parallel, sensors, satellites and other tools produce real-time data on the environment, people’s movements and more. While others are analyzing social media data to try to gauge anything from a community’s subjective wellbeing to rising food prices.

This all has considerable potential to allow us to measure those aspects of human development that count, but are not yet counted. Big Data also holds the promise of producing statistics almost instantaneously – so called “nowcasting” – and allowing disaggregation to levels of details hitherto undreamt of outside of a population census. But we also need to understand better the risks of Big Data and to agree global principles to ensure it is used wisely and ethically.

All of this will help improve decision making. But Big Data alone will not be enough. Many countries still lack basic data about their economic, social and environmental conditions. Data on key aspects of people’s wellbeing are still missing, especially for the most vulnerable and for the “invisible” groups. Moreover, even where data are available, decisions are often not based on evidence. Related to this a lack of data literacy also needs to be addressed: far too many people do not have the skills necessary to understand and use data. And this is important not only for the quality of their decisions, but also for their ability to hold policy makers accountable. Media, when they report statistics at all, sometimes still inaccurately report data. And so the “statistics, knowledge and policy” chain is broken in several places.

Another key concern that official statisticians understand better than most is the importance of data privacy. For every potential benefit Big Data offers, there is an equal but opposite risk that an unscrupulous government or group might use the same data to do harm rather than good. Imagine, for example, how much more terribly efficient ethnic cleansing might be with the help of big data. We must be cautious as we move forward.

And so while it is much too early to speculate on what our final report might say, we do believe that whatever the revolution holds, it must not become a struggle between anancient regime of traditional official statistics and a new Big Data Republique. A worthwhile revolution will provide a means for Big Data scientists and official statisticians to work together as partners and complement one another. Fraternity, quality, privacy! will be our motto.

Enrico Giovannini is the co-chair of the IAEG and is a professor at Tor Vergata University in Rome. He was previously the Italian Minister for Labour and Social Policy, the head of the Italian Statistics Office (ISTAT) and Chief Statistician and the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development.

Eva Jespersen is UNDP’s representative on the IAEG. She is deputy director of the Human Development Report Office and earlier guided a number of data initiatives at UNICEF’s Innocenti Research Centre.

Image: A mural depicts the famous Beatles lyrics, CC by Victor Saez

This post was originally featured on the UNDP HDRO website

Independent Expert Group on Data Revolution has kick-off meeting during General Assembly Week

A gathering of civil society and expert group

MeeThe Independent Expert Advisory Group (IEAG) on a data revolution for sustainable development was convened last week at UNHQ 25th-26th September, during General Assembly, for two day-long sessions. Below is a brief overview of the various sessions and some of the issues discussed.

Inaugural Meeting of Independent Expert Advisory Group at UNHQ

The group reviewed their mandate and agreed that it included defining what a data revolution for development means, suggesting measures to close data gaps, and seeking opportunities for new innovations and data sources while strengthening accountability at all levels. The group discussed the substance and timing of the report to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, due in early November.

During the initial discussion, group members highlighted several important issues including what the group means by the data revolution for development. Many members of the group view this concept as more of an evolution or accelerated data evolution, rather than a completely new paradigm, while others focused on the possibilities associated with big data and privately produced information.

Members of the group highlighted the fact it is imperative to ensure that the data is of sufficient quality and that because the mandate is for a data revolution for development, the goal of the data revolution should be to provide a framework for and investment in data that helps in achieving the SDGs and in monitoring and accountability.

The idea that the information demand for the SDGs will exceed the capability of data collection efforts was underscored. Even developed countries would need help in improving their efforts. Members mentioned that there are two things that are distinct: technological progress (which is inevitable) and what this progress means for official statistics. The role of National Statistical Systems in this new world could be an important point of discussion regarding the data revolution.

Other recurring themes during the discussion were the increase in the generation of data in the private sector and the implications of that for questions of the regulation and management of information, and a continual focus on the purpose of data for decision making, for accountability and for tracking progress. The group highlighted the need to align the frequency and format of data collection to decision making cycles in the public sector and elsewhere.

Meeting with Deputy Secretary General Jan Eliasson

Mr. Eliasson presented his idea of what the data revolution should be and it involves measures to close data gaps and to strengthen national statistical capacity to respond to the demands of a complex development agenda. He also mentioned the need to leverage new, non-traditional data like big data and that a data revolution of about far more than data and statistics, but also about how they are used.

The group then commented on Mr. Eliasson’s presentation and asked him questions including how this report can be made most useful in order to impact decisions, the process over the next several years, and on data as a human right. Mr Eliasson responded by directing the group to look at the OWG outcome document to see that countries feel the need for transformative change.

Read the Deputy Secretary-General’s full remarks at this event

Civil Society Outreach Day

A gathering of civil society and expert group
On Friday 26th September, the Independent Expert Advisory Group held a Townhall event and some in-depth sessions centered around a specific topic of the data revolution, with members of civil society, academia and the private sector. These served as a listening session for IEAG members, with representatives from over 60 civil society organisations in attendance.

Open Data and Accountability

One of the main issues discussed in this session was making data more open, potentially through Freedom of Information Acts, however, a problem is that even when these laws exist, many times they are not implemented. There was agreement among the entire group that data that is not confidential should be openly available. One big issue here is the capacity of people to find and understand the data that exists.

Discussion of possible open data standards created on the international level; the Open Government Partnership could be used as a model. A second issue with open data that was discussed was the risk of spreading data that is not high quality. A potential solution to this was the proposal of creating some sort of audit agency for open data and statistics. The European Union currently has something similar in place and an audit is conducted every five years. Many of the members emphasized that this audit must be done by an independent organization. Overall there was consensus in this meeting that there is a need for more open data, but that in order to make this a reality, efforts need to be made to ensure this data is of a high quality and that there is accountability of the data producers to protect confidentiality and privacy concerns.

Measuring the Sustainable Development Goals

This session was designed to discuss how the data revolution can be leveraged to make measurement of the SDGs more feasible. Some of the participants from civil society stated that there will be a need to move beyond quantitative indicators to more qualitative measures for measuring human rights-based targets. There was a strong point made that a lot of data currently exists but is not shared. For instance, many NGOs collect survey data at the local level but this data is not shared with NSOs or government agencies. Participants stressed that better coordination amongst a wide array of partners could go a long way to improving the measurement of the SDGs.

The importance of inclusiveness was discussed in relation to gathering data. Many times those people or groups most in need of measurement are not measured due to the difficulty of measuring them, the data revolution needs to ensure that all people and groups are included. Administrative records are an important source of information and this information needs to be made available to National Statistical Offices (NSOs) .

Another point for measuring the SDGs is that it will be important to have an adaptive monitoring system that will enable those involved to development new techniques to account for those being excluded. Feedback loops would help with this.

Finally, the point was made that maybe instead of data being seen as supporting and monitoring other sectors of development, data should be viewed as a development objective in and of itself. Finally, there was a great deal of consensus that there needs to be less of a focus on global aggregates and global reporting and more emphasis on data at the national and local level.

Challenges and Opportunities of Big Data and New Technologies

One of the biggest problems with big data is that currently it is almost all solely in the hands of the private sector. How can this data be made more public? The point was made that this fact is troubling from a development perspective as the private sector has very different objectives to the public sector and is not necessarily invested in the post-2015 agenda.

There was broad agreement that norms need to be developed around big data and that there needs to be trust in the confidentiality and reliability of this data.

Another issue is that it is very difficult to infer causality with big data and as a result, big data will not be a panacea for the availability of development data. There was no real agreement on how to address big data, other than it will be an important part of the future and needs to be closely examined.

Finally, the point was made that there are equity issues with big data, as the digital divide can exacerbate the ability to collect information using big data.

Image 2: Independent Expert Advisory Group speak with Civil Society representatives in themed sessions, this one focused on the challenges and opportunities of Big Data and innovations.

The data revolution is coming and it will unlock the corridors of power

a phone SMS describes ebola symptoms
Computer geeks and government statisticians are joining a UN initiative to raise the information bar

a phone SMS describes ebola symptomsOne might not think of statisticians or computer geeks as natural revolutionaries. But that, it turns out, would be unfair, because statisticians and computer geeks are in the vanguard of what could prove a very exciting revolution indeed – the revolution of data.

The world is awash with data. Every time someone walks down the street with their mobile phone, every time a satellite orbits the earth, and every time a product with a barcode is loaded or unloaded from a truck or a ship, data is created that can be, and increasingly is, pored over, analysed and examined for patterns and insights.

Despite this flood of information in some parts of the world, there are still people and things, in other parts of the globe, about which very little is known. Data on some people is almost nonexistent, and they tend to be the most marginalised, the poorest and the excluded.

We don’t know, for example, how many children with disabilities are out of school. We don’t really know how many women in the poorest countries die in childbirth – what we have are estimates based on other, often quite unreliable, information. Not knowing makes it easier to ignore hardship and injustice – and even where governments or other organisations do want to act, it makes it harder to know what to do.

Of course, this has been the case for a long time. But that may be beginning to change. Suddenly, numbers are in fashion. The “data revolution” is the idea of the moment, and it’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t think that more money, innovation and effort should be poured into counting and measuring, and that more open data can help to unlock the corridors of power.

A high-level group has just been appointed by the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, to come up with ideas for how to make this happen – a group that brings together academics and activists, the people who manage data for governments and the people who put together the global numbers.

These data revolutionaries met for the first time in New York last week. The job is to work out how to bring together the old and the new worlds of data – the government statisticians with the Silicon Valley developers; the citizen movements mapping their unmapped cities with the custodians of global numbers in UN agencies. All of these groups, and more, have something to contribute to increase the quantity, quality and usability of data – and to put it to work to improve people’s lives.

How can new technologies and the almost daily innovations in how the world is recorded, tracked and monitored be used to fill some of the most critical data gaps? How can the hard-pressed statistical offices in many developing countries be resourced and reorganised through innovation to cope with the growing demands of governments and citizens for more information? How can data from mobile phones and other devices be brought out of the private domain and used to serve the public good, without compromising privacy or safety? How can data be better joined up so we get more value from what is discovered?

This is an opportunity for change. An upheaval in measurement is coming, with the agreement next year of new global goals to monitor progress – which could include everything from land degradation to the quality of secondary education; from road traffic accidents to increased economic productivity. The goals will be accompanied by a monitoring framework, which will require governments to pay more attention to how, when, and to what standards, they measure these things.

If the last set of global goals – the millennium development goals – is anything to go by, one response to this will be more investment in data, a stronger focus on getting the numbers right, and greater public interest in the data produced.

This is a chance to bring that political demand for better data together with the technological opportunities and combine these with the popular movements in many countries calling for more open, accessible and useful data. This could, if we get it right, create a step change in what is measured, how it is measured, and who gets to see the numbers.

If the data revolution group is to make the right recommendations to the UN and to governments about how to rise to this opportunity, the widest possible range of people needs to be involved. The group needs to hear from everyone with an interest in, or ideas about, how to make information better, more available and more useful. You can feed into the process through this website.

This article first appeared in Guardian’s Global Development section
Image: In a world of mobile phones we are awash with data but there are still significant gaps. Photograph: UNICEF


Deputy Secretary General’s remarks on a data revolution for sustainable development

These remarks were delivered on 25th September 2014, at the first meeting of the Secretary General’s Independent Expert Advisory Group for a data revolution on sustainable development.

Checked against delivery version.

Ladies and gentlemen,



Thank you for this opportunity. Let me begin by conveying greetings from the Secretary-General who asked me to convey his gratitude to you for taking on this vital and urgent assignment.

Your group has been given the responsibility to advise the Secretary-General on the data revolution and its implications. This includes measures to close the data gaps and strengthen national statistical capacities. You come from diverse fields of data and statistics. But your expertise has brought you together to chart a new course of transformative action to respond to the demands of a complex development agenda.

I am a deep believer in your mission.

Through your work, you give visibility to people who have been invisible in policy-making and implementation.

Time is of the essence.

As you are aware, we are in the midst of a process to define a new sustainable development framework to succeed the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

This is both a great opportunity and a huge responsibility for the United Nations and the rest of the international community.

The MDGs have been the most successful global anti-poverty push in history.

The MDG framework process has highlighted a number of keys to success.

This includes:
1) reliable statistics to design interventions, measure progress and enhance accountability;
2) the importance of linking goals and targets with investments in data production at country level; and
3) building national capacity for data collection and reporting.

Indeed, data quality has greatly improved in recent years. Yet, we all know there is an urgent need to do more to further enhance data collection, dissemination and analysis.

Going forward, the role of data and statistics will be critical. This is particularly since the Post-2015 development agenda embraces the three dimensions of sustainable development: economic development, social inclusion and environmental sustainability.

That is why the Secretary-General’s High Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda has called for a new data revolution.

Better data and statistics will help governments reach the most marginalised and the vulnerable, track progress and make sure decisions are evidence-based. They can also strengthen accountability.

In the process, we need to find ways to garner broader participation and resources from international agencies, civil society organizations, the private sector and academia.

In addition to traditional statistics, we need to leverage new, non-traditional data such as big data.

The data revolution should build on innovative initiatives in technology and capacity building, especially at the country level. It should also expand existing monitoring frameworks towards sustainable architecture for development data.

The role of national statistical systems will be fundamental.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

In closing, I encourage you to work in an open and transparent manner, engaging with non-traditional counterparts, not least civil society.

Outreach will be key to the legitimacy of this work. You should also amplify the voices of developing countries where the data gaps are larger and where human and institutional capacities are lagging.

As I said at the beginning of my remarks, we do not have the luxury of time.

You should know that your work will be a key input to the synthesis report of the Secretary General at the end of the year. I regret that the timeframe for your work is short. But we have confidence that you can deliver.

We cannot reach our shared goals without data that enable us to reach the most vulnerable, account for our impacts on sustainable development and improve monitoring and accountability.

I have no doubt that today’s meeting will help usher in a data revolution that will lead to a Post-2015 development agenda that leaves no one behind.

Ultimately, let us not forget that a data revolution is about far more than statistics and counting. It is about making sure that the voices are heard and that aspirations of people count.

On behalf of the Secretary-General, I thank you for your engagement and commitment.

I wish you fruitful deliberations and look forward to receiving your conclusions.

Thank you.

A warm welcome..

Prof Giavannini EnricoA warm welcome to the website of the Independent Advisory Expert Group (IAEG) on “Data revolution for development”.

As everybody knows, data and data analysis are surrounding and influencing our lives more than ever. Citizens, businesses and public and private institutions are the engine of this process, providing data on almost all human activities, especially when using ICT. In parallel, sensors, satellites and other tools produce real-time data on the environment, mobility behaviours and more.

We have at our disposal a huge amount of statistical information and much more will be available in the future. But this is not enough. Many countries still lack fundamental data about their economic, social and environmental conditions. Data on key phenomena related to people’s wellbeing are still missing, especially for the most vulnerable groups. Even where data are available, evidence-based decision making is not happening as frequently as it should.

A lack of data literacy is another issued to be addressed – a large proportion of our populations do not have the skills to analyse data, not only to improve their decisions, but also to hold policy makers accountable. Media still inaccurately report data or do not report key statistics at all. In other words, the chain “statistics, knowledge and policy” is broken in several places.

The IEAG has been asked to craft a strategic framework on what the “data revolution for development” would mean in practice, how it can be funded and what institutional and governance implications this would entail. Specifically, the Group is asked to suggest measures to close the data gaps and strengthen national statistical capacities, and to assess the new opportunities linked to innovation, technical progress and the surge of new public and private data providers to support and complement the conventional national countries statistical systems to support the sustainable development agenda, as well as to strengthen accountability at the global, regional and national level.

The IEAG was established by the UN Secretary General at the end of August. Since then, we have been working very hard to collect a wide range of documents, ideas and inputs to develop our Report, with publication due in November. We want to do that by harnessing the wide knowledge built over the years on these themes, as well as the wealth of new ideas that are still at an embryonic level. This is why, despite the short time available, we kindly encourage you to provide ideas, suggestions, inputs to this process.

Today we have the first plenary meeting of the IEAG, while tomorrow we will spend the whole day listening to groups that have offered to contribute to our work. The delivery of the Report will not be “the end of the story”: on the contrary, we are convinced that the consultation process on the next steps should continue over time, building a world community ready to contribute to and benefit from the “data revolution”.

We count on you.

Enrico Giovannini, Co-chair of the IEAG

IMAGE: Enrico Giovannini