Data Experts Discuss How to Harness Non-Official Sources

19 November 2020

During a side event at the recent UN World Data Forum, 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

The session titled, ‘Learning from open geodata platforms that worked in the midst of a pandemic,’ was organized by GeoCensos. Other presenters included: Javier Andrés Carranza Torres, Director of GeoCensos; Luca Di Gennaro Splendore, statistical consultant; Olga Henker, Data Quality Conformity Organization Body; and Enrique Pelaez, CONICET (Argentina). [IISD event page] [Virtual WDF programme] [SDG Knowledge Hub story on WDF outcome]

This article will be cross-posted at the global SDG Knowledge Hub of IISD as part of a series of publications from the Leave No One Behind partnership.