A World That Counts

By on 14/11/2014 | Updated on 04/02/2022
The Data Revolution report, by the UN's IEAG

A new report by the United Nations Independent Expert Advisory Group Secretariat is on ‘A Data Revolution For Sustainable Development’. As it says: ‘No one should be invisible’.

The growth of technology, particularly electronic technology, has led to an explosion of data. As so often with technological advances, we find we can do something before we have worked out whether we should, or what the implications are. The exponential growth in the volume and types of data is something governments, organisations and individuals are slowly coming to terms with.

This extensive report is the latest contribution to the data discussion and is the result of hundreds of contributions from hundreds of individuals, experts and organisations. It comes to five conclusions:

  1. The UN should help establish a ‘Global Consensus on Data’ to cover legal, technical, geospatial, statistical and privacy standards.
  2. The UN proposes forming a ‘Network of Data Innovation Networks’. This would create a mechanism for sharing and using technology and innovation for the common good. It would also contribute towards improving the monitoring of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
  3. There needs to be a new funding stream to support the data revolution for SDGs. This would be for improving the quality and capacity of the data as well as educational programmes and for helping low income countries. This should be endorsed in Addis Ababa in July 2015 at the Third International Conference on Financing for Development.
  4. The UN is proposing a ‘Global Partnership for Sustainable Development’, led by the UN, promoting initiatives like a World Forum on Sustainable Development Data, a Global Users Forum for Data for SDGs and for brokering public-private partnerships.
  5. There should be an SDG data lab which would ‘exploit some quick wins on SDG data’.

Ultimately, this is, as the report says, about ‘seeking out high-quality data that can be used to compare outcomes and changes over time and between and within countries, and continuing to do so, year after year.’

To the UN’s Independent Expert Advisory Group (IEAG) this is of course a huge challenge. ‘Fortunately’, they say, ‘this challenge comes together with a huge opportunity.’

They point out that revolutions start with people not with reports, and the data revolution is well under way. The report is about how to mobilise this revolution for sustainable development. They give the statistic that 90% of all the data in the world has been created in the last two years. That’s a revolution.

The report sees this data revolution as an opportunity to improve the data essential for decision making, accountability and solving development challenges. They call on governments and the UN to act so that data can play its full part in the realisation of the SDGs by closing key gaps in the data itself, as well as access to and use of that data. This particularly applies to the discrepancies between developed and developing countries, between information-rich and information-poor countries and between public and private sectors.

Massive and Passive Data

Early on, the report faces up to the range of new risks all this data brings with it, and the IEAG are to be commended for addressing these issues. What the report aims to do is to ‘minimise the risks and maximise the opportunities’.

It highlights some of the risk areas, such as human rights, privacy, minorities and data sovereignty. It points out that there is a growing gap not just between what some countries gather in terms of data and others, but also between the information that citizens volunteer and the data that is passively collected.

They are calling this the ‘massive and passive’ data generated by third parties harvesting the digital footprints left by citizens online. Clearly, such data can be used for bad as well as good purposes, and if the data is not accurate, and governments act on it, then further harm can follow.

Further gaps are appearing between the private sector, which is being faster at collecting, analysing and then acting on data, and the public sector which is slower to act. Similarly the gap between richer and poorer countries is growing as poorer countries can expend less of their GDP on investment and use of the internet services. Advanced economies are ahead on virtually every metric when it comes to access to, and use of digital technologies.

Timely Data

This means that, despite the huge volume of data, there isn’t enough high-quality data for many people and many regions of the planet. This makes accurate planning for the SDGs increasingly difficult. The report says that ‘in a world awash with data, it is shocking how little is known about some people and some parts of our environment’.

Many countries either don’t collect data, or are too late in collecting it, on a number of topics such as employment, age and disability. It is striking that we have more data for the period 2005-2009 than we do for the period 2010-2013. With time lags of that duration between collecting and disseminating the information, there is clearly not enough timely data to make informed decisions about the future.

To underline the point, the report highlights that entire groups of people and key issues remain invisible. Indigenous populations and slum dwellers are left out of most data sets. And there is the startling statistic that in 2012 four out of every 10 babies born in the world were not registered with civil authorities and thus are invisible or ‘don’t exist’ officially.

National Statistical Offices

Collecting and interpreting all the data will require new actors but the report sees a continuing role for national statistical offices. But it is blunt in its view that they will have to change.

Specifically, they will ‘need to change, and more quickly than in the past, and continue to adapt, abandoning expensive and cumbersome production processes, incorporating new data sources, including administrative data from other government departments, and focusing on providing data that is human- and machine-readable, compatible with geospatial information systems and available quickly enough to ensure that the data cycle matches the decision cycle.’

Key Principles

Helpfully the report lays out some key principles which it says should help guide the data revolution. These include:

Data quality and integrity. Drawing on the work of the UN Fundamental Principles of Official Statistics as well as the work of independent third parties, there should be a robust framework to ensure the high quality and integrity of data collected.

Data disaggregation. The report recommends the disaggregation of data to cover things like geography, wealth, disability, sex and age. Clearly this would have to be done with reference to due safeguards for individual privacy and human rights.

Data timeliness. Clearly, standards should be tightened and technology leveraged to reduce the delay between collection and publication. As the report says: ‘The data cycle must match the decision cycle.’

Data transparency. The report wants all data which is on public matters or which is funded from public monies to be made public and open by default. This would mean being open both technically (so it can be read and processed easily) as well as legally (so there are no restrictions on its use).

Data usability and curation. Data is often presented in ways which are hard to understand or access, particularly for the non-specialist. The report wants this to end, so that citizens can access and understand datasets.

Data protection and privacy. This major issue is highlighted. Risks include everything from privacy concerns to demands from state bodies and interruption from hackers. The report recommends robust national policy and legal frameworks as well as clear international norms, so that citizens feel confident in the gathering of big data.

Data governance and independence. The report recommends the strengthening of national statistical offices so that they can resist political and interest group pressure. The offices need to be autonomous, independent of political influence and financially secure.

Data resources and capacity. The IEAG highlights that data is an international issue, and that there is a global responsibility for effective statistical systems in every nation. It highlights that more advanced nations should assist those countries with lower technological levels to reach internationally agreed standards.

Data rights. Human rights figure large in the report, and it makes clear claim that any legal or regulatory mechanisms, networks or partnerships set up to work with the data revolution for sustainable development should have the protection of human rights as a core part of their activities.

No One Should Be Invisible

This report looks at both the problems and the potential of the data revolution. It suggests ways to move forward which would minimise the risks and maximise the positive outcomes, and as such is to be welcomed. It’s take-away desire is this:

‘Never again should it be possible to say “we didn’t know”. No one should be invisible. This is the world we want – a world that counts.’


About Graham Scott

Graham is an experienced editor and publisher and an award-winning writer. He has travelled extensively and is interested in world cultures.

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