Closing session: Implementation of the Cape Town global action plan for sustainable development data: The way forward

25 Oct 2018 02:00h

Event report

The moderator, Mr Rajesh Mirchandani (Chief Communications Officer, UN Foundation) put the focus of the final session on key findings and lessons learned from the UN World Data Forum 2018. He asked the discussants to reflect on what has changed since the last UN World Data Forum in 2017, and what will be done differently on the road to the 2020 forum.

Ms Nenna Nwakanma (Web Foundation, Africa Open Data Network) explained that she witnessed a substantial improvement in collaboration among various stakeholders, and that statisticians have been brought into dialogue with others. She also witnessed increased participation by women, with more and more women taking up speaking roles. She explained that a high number of participants came from Africa, showing the continued engagement of the continent. However, Nwakanma also identified gaps. First, there is still a funding gap for participation, resulting in the underrepresentation of developing countries and marginalised groups. Second, she observed that despite a widening of the conversation, almost 50% of the participants were statisticians. There is a clear need to do more to include other stakeholders and those working with new forms of data. Last but not least, she urged that the participation of the younger generation needs to be fostered.

Ms Sofie Habram (Policy Specialist, Development Finance Statistics, Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency) argued that it is time to attract more donor countries to the forum to start working towards sustained support for developing statistical capacities. She also urged that new approaches to capacity development need to be found and that there is a global need to re-think capacity development. Ownership should always be with partner countries and working with partner countries should include long-term institutional support, with the aim of creating a statistical infrastructure for the future. However, a focus on statistical skills alone will not be enough: information and communications technology (ICT), management, and communication skills are just as crucial.

Mr George W. McCarthy (President and CEO, Lincoln Institute of Land Policy in Cambridge, MA) highlighted both the promises and pitfalls of big data. He explained that his ambition is to the tell a story about development from the ground up, and from the sky down, by marrying geospatial data with local data. He cautioned that, as organisations move more and more to including new forms of data such as big data, methodological challenges need to be taken into account, such as models of inference, representatives of the data, and data biases. Generally, more needs to be done to collect local data to get a more granular view and to tell local stories that focus on the experiences of people on the ground.

Ms Francesca Perucci (Chief, Statistical Services Branch, UN Statistics Division) argued that since the last UN World Data Forum, key stakeholders have a much better sense of the areas that need attention for implementation. She also argued that the application of the Cape Town Global Action Plan for Sustainable Development Data is clearly underway. However, existing projects need to be scaled up to produce the much-needed statistics and new data for achieving the sustainable development goals (SDGs). For example, mobile phone data has a huge potential for reaching the SDGs. At the same time, there are still gaps and areas where more clarity is needed, and there is a strong need to engage the whole community and improve dialogues between stakeholders. As such, data users need to be made part of the national statistical systems.

Mr Zachary Mwangi (Director-General, Kenya National Bureau of Statistics) emphasised that greater care needs to be taken to make sure that statistical products are useful to, and understood by, the users. This means that policy makers on all levels, citizens, and (data) journalists need to be engaged. At the same time, Mwangi stressed that reform is needed to include new forms of data in the work of National Statistical Organisations (NSOs), develop the right legal framework and standards for the use of big data, align the various approaches within the national statistical ecosystem, build trust, and increase research and capacity development. Further, increased international co-operation that is well aligned is needed to create new opportunities.

In terms of what has been achieved so far, Perucci stressed the involvement of new actors and a better understanding of needs. Habaram also argued that important steps to identifying common challenges have been taken. Further, a common language between those involved has emerged, which will allow for addressing the challenges ahead effectively.

In terms of challenges for the future Nwakanma advocated for open data and the principle of ‘open by default’. The privacy and data rights of citizens need to be ensured and, in a global context, tendencies towards digital colonialisation or corporate hijacking need to be countered. Similarly, McCarthy raised concerns about the privatisation of data and advocated for a data commons approach, which treats data as a public good that is produced by the public sector.

The panel agreed that for the next UN World Data Forum, a review of investment in better data, the impact of data, and the achievements in capacity building is needed.

The panel was followed by a discussion among some of the key organisers of the process. Mr Mahmoud Mohieldin (World Bank Group Senior Vice President, 2030 Development Agenda, UN Relations, and Partnerships) stressed that building trust, fostering data disaggregation, harnessing new technologies, and dealing effectively with technological disruptions are important aspects. Further, individuals are part of the process and they need to recognise themselves in the data. Ms Gabriella Vukovich (Vice Chair, UN Statistical Commission) emphasised partnership, co-operation, and capacity and argued that the business model of producing statistics needs to be constantly adapted in order for NSOs and others to stay in business. NSOs, in her view, should take a central role and stay in the driving seat, but they should speed up their own modernisation. Mr Stefan Schweinfest (Director, UN Statistics Division, Department of Economics and Social Affairs) highlighted that the forum showed that statisticians are not dusty dinosaurs but active members of a dialogue that has begun to develop a common language to tackle the challenges ahead.

Mr Abdulla Nasser Lootah (Director-General, Federal Competitiveness and Statistics Authority, UAE) closed the 2nd UN World Data Forum by emphasising that three shared beliefs guided the conference: a commitment to peace, the practice of respect, and appreciation. He argued that while there is often talk about technological interoperability, the forum also achieved human interoperability by bringing various stakeholders together – the latter arguably being the more challenging part. Last but not least, he encouraged the organisation of national and local data fora.