Data for Good Exchange 2019 Keynote Preview: How Data Helps the World Become Sustainable

Ghana’s gold reservoirs attract companies that churn up the land in search of the precious metal. Due to limited resources, government workers would drive to suspect areas in hopes of finding an actual illegal mine. They had little success, and illegal mining became a major political issue because of the environmental and health risks.

By working with the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data to  make better use of data in trying to achieve the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), Ghana now has access to satellite data and the capacity to use that data to locate where changes in the forest cover and water resources have occurred – likely due to illegal mining activity. In just a few months, the Ghanaian government has closed 47 illegal mines.

The SDGs are the goals and targets set in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development that was first adopted by all UN Member States at the historic UN Sustainable Development Summit in September 2015, with the Paris Agreement on climate change coming into force in 2016. The SDGs are 17 goals that address five pillars – People, Peace, Prosperity, Planet and Partnership – and each member state has committed to work towards achieving these.

The theme for the Data for Good Exchange 2019 conference to be held at Bloomberg’s Global Headquarters in New York City on Sunday, September 15, 2019, is “Data Science for the SDGs.” The conference will open with a two-part keynote from two distinguished speakers: Francesca Perucci, Chief of the Statistical Services Branch at the United Nations Statistics Division (UNSD), Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), and Claire Melamed, Chief Executive Officer of the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data. Together, their work has been integral in the development of methods to capture the data which is needed to inform the necessary measures and interventions and ensure that the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is fully implemented and to measure progress related to the SDGs in nations around the world.

Francesca Perucci
Francesca Perucci, Chief of the Statistical Services Branch at the United Nations Statistics Division (UNSD), Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA)

In her role, Perucci and her team are responsible for preparing the annual progress reports on the SDGs and for coordinating the activities around the improvement of data and statistics needed to implement the 2030 Agenda. The SDG indicators provide evidence-based insights whether today’s actions are laying the foundation to achieve the SDGs. They recently published the Sustainable Development Goals Report 2019, which demonstrates that some progress is being made in some critical areas, and that some favorable trends are evident. However, the report also identifies many areas that need urgent collective attention. In her keynote talk, she will provide an overview of the SDGs, why they are important, share some of the data they’re seeing and the challenges faced with regards to the collection of some of the relevant data. She will also highlight the actions and programs undertaken by the UN to make better, more timely, open and disaggregated data for the SDGs a reality.

Melamed heads up a global team based in five countries, whose goal is to bring together governments, the private sector, and civil society organizations to use the data revolution to achieve the SDGs. In her talk, she will show how data science is helping to achieve the SDGs, and how the impact of new methods and ideas can be scaled up through partnerships between academia, the public sector, private sector, and civil society.

Claire Melamed
Claire Melamed, Chief Executive Officer of the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data

Challenges of using data to measure progress towards the SDGs

Each country must produce data and indicators for the SDGs to review progress towards these goals, help guide countries’ own policies and ensure accountability. The global statistical system brings together country data to compile the 232 SDG indicators that are used to monitor progress at the global level.

The Global Partnership was established to bring together the public and private sectors to develop the data systems that are needed to achieve these ambitious, yet complex, goals. To date, they are working with 10 partner countries on innovative ways to collect and analyze data so that they can effectively track progress as they make strides towards achieving the SDGs, and have brokered over 50 new partnerships to bring together public and private sectors, with academia and civil society, to accelerate and monitor progress.

The sustainable development agenda is vast, with many complex targets, and indicators don’t necessarily address every aspect of the targets. “To translate that into something numerical is very difficult,” notes Perucci. “The main challenge the global statistical community faces is how to provide a single set of indicators which are able to address the scope and ambition of the agenda and give a sense of what progress is being made in all groups of the population.”

Data challenges are primarily technical in nature. There are a series of steps between collecting the data and ensuring they’re used to impact peoples’ lives. Capacity development and institutional buy-in is needed so people understand the value. Data is the basis for government decision-making and also serves as an indicator to help governments allocate resources to both monitor and take steps towards achieving these goals. While change takes time, countries have only 11 more years to achieve the SDGs.

Understanding different population groups – particularly marginalized groups, most in need of support – is one of the most difficult areas of data production because it requires oversampling — which is resource intensive — and the development and use of new tools and methodologies. Marginalized groups go uncounted because they’re unreachable, and if they were counted, their particular needs and circumstances are poorly measured and often misunderstood.

Collecting this data often requires expensive new data collection systems. Alternative data sources alone are not always the answer. Satellite imagery, for example, might not be effective on their own because they may not capture access to transportation or proximity to roads for people with a disability. Surveys — assuming there’s a large enough sample and the questions are asked in a way to address the specific needs and circumstances of those groups — may be helpful, but they are expensive, noted Perucci.

Integrating different data sources and new technologies, paired with existing data sources and methods, give us an unprecedented opportunity to address these challenges. The UN has launched a number of initiatives to assist countries in developing and transforming their national statistical systems and build their capacity to respond to the unprecedented data demand of the SDGs. “We work with countries to establish systems for data and metadata exchange across the system, and to integrate geospatial information with statistics, so that they can benefit from all data sources,” said Perucci.

The Global Partnership helps governments invest in data that provides answers. This may mean looking at routine data collected by schools and health clinics, for example, to uncover patterns within certain populations. “We work with them in a range of different ways to encourage them to collect that data and for them to create the relationships and partnerships that will give them the resources to do that,” said Melamed.

Providing training and tools helps governments extract insight from data and close capacity gaps. Countries looking to move towards a digital census, for example, could be challenged with buying thousands of tablets for their enumerators, and the Global Partnership works with countries to enable the sharing of resources and best practices in order to help each one take the necessary steps to overcome these challenges.

The Global Partnership is working to broker scalable, long-term relationships between institutions that can provide the data, academics who can help analyze that data, and governments that want to use that data and institutionalize it into their own decision-making.

“It’s not about developing new methods – it’s all about creating scale and use in order to make sure data innovations move from the classroom into the cabinet room, where they can change people’s lives for the better,” said Melamed.