UN World Data Forum 2018

22 Oct 2018 to 24 Oct 2018
Federal Competitiveness And Statistics Authority Dubai
Dubai, United Arab Emirates


Event report/s:
Katharina E Höne

Introducing the panel, Ms Katharina Höne (Researcher in Diplomacy and Global Governance, DiploFoundation) argued that there are vast opportunities related to data and that our abil

Introducing the panel, Ms Katharina Höne (Researcher in Diplomacy and Global Governance, DiploFoundation) argued that there are vast opportunities related to data and that our ability to measure the current state of development is paramount to improving the lives of many. The conference as a whole discussed many useful applications of data, and in particular new forms of data such as social media and geo-spatial data. Höne argued that while there are frequent and strong calls for statistical capacity development, equally strong attention needs to be placed on developing the capacities of policy makers and diplomats for the data driven era. Hence, a number of question arise: How do we develop these capacities? What are the needs? What are possible approaches? And, what and who should be included?

Ms Maria Fasli (UNESCO Chair in Analytics and Data Science; Director at the Institute for Analytics and Data Science, University of Essex, UK) who teaches data science as part of her professorship and engages in capacity building and work with policy makers, began by stressing that more data does not equal more knowledge and argued that data is only valuable if it is put in the service of better decision-making. She introduced various levels of data analytics: (a) descriptive, (b) diagnostic, (c) predictive, and (d) prescriptive analytics – ranging from hindsight to insight and ultimately foresight. However, she cautioned that as we move to insight and foresight, the level of complexity increases and the tools available to us in these areas are still in their early stages. She cautioned that policy-makers need to be aware of the limitations of the various types of analytics and mindful of unrealistic promises. Fasli also highlighted a number of challenges of big data analysis and machine learning. Namely, there is often a problem of explainability and interpretability of machine learning algorithms. Algorithms might be biased, given the limitations of the data sets they have been based on, and there is the danger of violating existing codes of practice or ethical standards. Looking at capacity development, she highlighted that not all skills can be found within one individual and that it is paramount to build good teams of people with a number of different skills. Such skills should also include story telling skills, negotiation and communication skills, and the ability to critically question the data and its analysis.

Mr Graham Nelson (Head of the Open Source Unit, UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO)) explained that the Open Source Unit is based on the idea to fuse data, in particular open source data, and diplomacy. The unit has been operating for more than two years now and has grown from 10 to 20 employees. It is multidisciplinary and brings three specialisms together: data science, open source intelligence, and behavioural science. The aim is to address policy challenges and to provide better evidence-based, insightful and reflected decisions. Nelson provided a number of examples which included an interactive tool that maps the Brexit conversation in online media based on content, themes, and mood and clusters conversation according to similarity. Another example included using open data to understand online extremism. A final example was a tool that supports crisis response activities by scraping news websites, with a machine reading the content, and pulling out key themes, which are accessible via an app that maps the global conversation. Nelson also mentioned the importance of using data-driven insights to counter disinformation online, to provide a better evidence-base for policy decisions, and to map the UK FCO’s own activities.

Ms Grace Mutung'u (Kenya ICT Support Network) described her work as focusing on fostering ICT policies and their reform in Kenya and beyond. She highlighted that there is a lot of talk about the need for more data on Africans in sub-Saharan Africa. Governments are asking mobile network operators for more data and require citizens to increasingly use online services and provide biometric, housing, and ethnographic data. However, she cautioned that we need to wonder to what extent this perceived lack of data should be taken at face value. It is important to question to what extent existing data could be linked better, used better, and what other interests are linked to this push for more data. She also argued that there is a push for citizens in Kenya and other countries to use governmental online services. Yet, there is still a huge gap in Internet penetration and digital literacy standing in the way of using these services. In addition, while there is growing digitisation in various sectors, there is lack of safeguards such as data security and privacy. Mutung’u also pointed to positive changes due to appropriate regulations, and the impact of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and emerging national policies. In conclusion, she advocated for a more people-centric data economy, which puts people at the centre.

Mr Javier Teran (Statistician at the Centre for Humanitarian Data, UN OCHA) explained that the mission of the Centre for Humanitarian Data, which opened one year ago, is to work with partners to foster the positive impact of data and humanitarian work. He highlighted the centre's four areas of work: (a) offering data services that connect relevant data sets with users such as governments and intergovernmental and non-governmental organisations, (b) supporting data policies to ensure the responsible use of humanitarian data, (c) fostering data literacy to increase the data capacities of individuals and organisations in the development community and beyond, and (d) network engagement to build a community around data for development and work with communities and relevant stakeholders. Teran showed a number of examples of data visualisations and interactive tools provided by the centre. The topics covered included mapping conflict-related displacement in Afghanistan, Rohingya refugee camps, energy consumption of refugees and displaced people, and education in conflict. He explained that various organisations share data with the centre such as UNOSAT, the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, and the UN refugee agency. In conclusion, he stressed the importance of safeguarding privacy and working with the appropriate level of data aggregation.

Asked about the current biggest need in capacity development for data, Fasli emphasised that a better understanding of how to turn data science into action and how to close the feedback loop from data to policy and back was needed. Nelson argued that a shift towards a more data-centric thinking in policy-making needs to take place. Mutung’u stressed that, speaking from her context in Kenya and sub-Saharan Africa, capacity development needs to empower individuals and organisations to move from being consumers of data and data insights, to becoming producers through appropriate and early education. Teran pointed to the importance of being able to use the findings of data scientist appropriately.

Further questions from the audience touched on the potential mis-use of data by policy-makers, the need to also train statisticians to work with policy makers effectively, and the short-term political perspective that stands in contrast to a more long-term perspective needed to invest in the appropriate technology.


Katharina E Höne

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.


Grace Mutung'u

In a previous session at the UN Data Forum, the majority of participants in an audience poll voted for data literacy as a means to increase trust in data and statistics. This session sought to unpack what data literacy means, and to share some examples. It was moderated by Mr Paul Matthews (Senior Lecturer, University of the West of England, UK).

Data literacy is perceived as a technical discipline that links mathematics to information and communications technology (ICT). Many relate it to the skills and competencies required for data visualisation. In relation to the sustainable development goal (SDG) of leaving no one behind, Mr Omar Bakari (Programme Director, Data Zetu, Tanzania, and Co-founder of International Research and Exchange Board, IREX) explained about his particular cultural context where music and art are powerful tools for social communication. Data Zetu used tools such as 'leso' - a popular fabric in his community, to engage youth in systems and design thinking, and to communicate statistics.

Ms Jane Crofts (Founder of Data To The People) introduced Data to the People, an organisation she had founded to develop a data literacy competency framework. The framework measures skills such as reading, writing and understanding data. She spoke about data richness and poverty in relation to the digital divide and gave examples on how to make learning open for people of different backgrounds. Speaking on inclusion in data literacy, she explained that it should not only be viewed as increasing the number of people with data literacy skills, but also as the creation of an enabling environment for learning about data.

Ms Neda Jafar (Head Statistical Policies and Coordination Unit, UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), Beirut) presented the integrated gender statistics toolkit that was tailored to the experiences and needs of Asian countries. ESCWA also had an outreach programme to encourage interaction with data. She noted gaps between the supply of statistics and demand from policy makers. Often, policy makers do not request data and when they do, they do not use it. In addition, official statistics do not always include everyone and hence, there was a need to improve the official identification of people.

Mr James Edward Ridgway (Emeritus Professor, Durham University) is working on a project called ProCivicStat that promotes civic engagement through data. He has been involved in developing innovative curricula for statistics in high schools with the aim of building the next generation’s capacity for data work. Drawing from the history of translation of the Bible, he explained that technology is never neutral - as political leaders influence technical work through laws and directives that favour them. He put an emphasis on fairness, stating that people should be taught about positive values as they learn about data. He also made a case for the application of data through methods that were engaging to people, such as gaming and fact checking.

Mr Emmanuel Letouzé (Director, Data-Pop Alliance and Program Director, OPAL Project) is a demographer by training. He recalled how literacy was historically measured as being able to sign one’s name, then reading and writing, and currently the ability to think critically. He described data literacy as the willingness and ability to constructively engage in society through data. Building blocks for data literacy include : concepts, where people are taught about data theory; tools and techniques; design; and engagement or communication through data.

Comments from the audience included a discussion on the benefits of cultural and social inclusion, including literacy for persons with disability and institutionalised persons. A participant asked about current segmentation practices in official statistics, where statistics were presented according to the level of audience expertise. It was noted that data visualisation had expanded the views in which data could be presented and consequently disaggregated in a multiple ways to study various problems.

Data literacy also includes the collection of data, which many users of technology participate in. If users were more informed on how data such as mobile metadata, fitbit and social media data was organised and used, it would ignite their interest data policy issues. Participants were reminded that previous movements had already carried out work on statistical literacy and many of their methods could be borrowed and applied to current problems.

Grace Mutung'u

The session was opened by Mr Emmanuel Letouzé (Director, Data-Pop Alliance), who started by introducing Open Algorithms (OPAL), a project at the intersection of big data and public good. OPAL is its pilot phase, with two telco companies - Orange and Telefonica in Senegal - having opened their databases to third parties. The project plans to go into its beta phase in the next two years, and expand from 2020 onwards. It features an algorithm database, an application programming interface (API,) and privacy by design, to comply with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and other laws.

The session was composed of a panel discussion on the rationale for OPAL and use cases. It was followed by a demonstration of the system.

Ms Natalie Grover (Global Program Manager, Data-Pop Alliance and OPAL Project) moderated the panel.

Ms Claire Melamed (Executive-Director, Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data) shared her insights on how OPAL was relevant for the sustainable development goals (SDGs). She explained that reconciling commercial interests with public interests was a key policy question in big data. OPAL was therefore an experiment whose progress should be followed because it revolutionised the data economy, by bringing together public and private actors.

Mr Pedro de Alarcon (Head of Big Data for Social Good, Telefónica (Colombia)) described how they had deployed OPAL. They were guided by the principle of giving back to society and were currently allowing public agencies to query their data.

Mr Babacar Ndir (Director-General Agence Nationale de la Statistique et de la Démographie (ANSD)) traced the evolution of Senegal’s national statistics systems. While in the past analogue methods were used to collect data, digital methods were now being employed. The data could be matched with data in the hands of private sector companies, such as mobile network operators, to provide more comprehensive insights. He noted that their biggest challenge was improving capacity for digital data processing.

Ms Sandra Moreno (Technical Director of Geoestatistical Division, National Administrative Department of Statistics of Colombia (DANE)) described Colombia’s challenges in interpreting data. These included getting access to data from private companies, and the lack of capacity to process the data. For example, they could only analyse data for one city. She described OPAL as an opportunity to use algorithms to focus on selected problems. While the use of OPAL for statistical data was still experimental, she rooted for open data and public private partnerships in big data.

Mr Seynade Ousmane (Senior Economist, IPAR) also spoke of OPAL in relation to the SDG goals. In giving access to disaggregated data, the private sector had an opportunity to give back to society. He also gave an overview of OPAL’s governance model, known as the Council for the Orientation of Development and Ethics (CODE) whose main objective was to build ethics in OPAL use cases. There is also a capacity building aspect for users of the system.

De Alarcon showed a demonstration of the Pedro server in Colombia which was connected to the telcom server. The portal allowed users to ask a question and then choose an algorithm. Currently there are two algorithms: home detection and presence. Users could adjust the granularity level, per geographical area and time. The query returned a graphic census. In the second viewing, the query returned a mobility matrix. These answers could be downloaded in different formats such as PDF, JPEg and Geoson.

Following feedback from the community, they had developed an application programming interface (API) for researchers to design their data queries. The data was available for free for governments and they were exploring costs so that they could sell data to private companies. Participants also got to view the API. They were shown how to query the system using a token. The platform is open source and users could therefore improve it.

Mr Nicolas de Cordes (Vice President, Marketing Anticipation, Orange Group), presented OPAL’s architecture, demonstrating its privacy by design features. These included pseudonymisation, and the aggregation and anonymisation of data before it was accessed by the API. The system was also designed to run on a variety of databases from telcos to banks and insurance. Use case examples included a study of schools in Senegal where issues such as poverty and peace were correlated to literacy rates. The model revealed that the rate of teacher training, the number of schools and the concentration of roads, correlated to literacy rates. Outliers, such as those who were in a poor community but had high literacy rates were studied further to draw lessons for improvement of education.

Moreno also shared use cases. Before conducting the national population census in Columbia, they used mobile phone data to learn people’s activities so that they could organise their census operations around their schedules. They were planning to use the data to study the migration of people within Colombia, so as to understand migration patterns within and outside towns. This would be useful in anticipating people’s service needs.

The audience feedback included questions on funding of the system, as well as how the board would manage competitors within the same market. On methodology, a participant wondered how representative the data in the system was, and how it could be standardised for national statistical operations.


Grace Mutung'u

Ms Deirdre Appel (Program Manager, Open Data Watch) explained that the session would be in two parts where first, panellists would set the stage on potential opportunities for brin

Ms Deirdre Appel (Program Manager, Open Data Watch) explained that the session would be in two parts where first, panellists would set the stage on potential opportunities for bringing data producers and users together. It would be followed by an interactive session where audience would discuss questions in groups. Paige Kirby, Senior Policy Advisor at Development Gateway moderated the first session.

Ms Natalia Carfi (Deputy-Director, Open Data Charter) saw an opportunity in more deliberate publishing of open government data. She gave examples of fun data portals where users could find statistics about themselves for instance, on people with similar names; art on open data; as well as the school on data. She explained that data producers could make impact by returning data to the people.

Ms Harpinder Collacott (Executive Director, Development Initiatives) described the opportunity for creating a culture of open data. She spoke about open aid data portals where governments produced data about development aid. Stakeholders in the aid sector, including other governments then use the data to improve transparency and accountability. As users have different needs, academics work with raw datasets for example, while policy makers need policy issues supported by data.

Ms Ayush Ariunzaya (Chairperson, National Stats Office of Mongolia) described how she transformed her office, which had a long history (having been established 95 years ago). It already had good standards and practices internally, but had for many years been producing data that was not palatable to the public. She set up a communications unit that is involved in training, user engagement and the design of a new more interactive website. They have noted that users mostly search about themselves, for example their names and number of people with similar names. The office was also working with champions for statistical information dissemination.

The interactive part of the session included topics such as: the type of data used and produced; capacity and its ability to impact data production; what data producers could do differently to encourage the use of data; and what a user-centric approach to data production would look like.

During the discussion, many people identified themselves as both users and producers. Others were also collectors of data. Some of the challenges identified include the lack of interoperability, which requires data users to go through other processes to make the data usable. Many data producers had also not established good feedback mechanisms for their data products.

Some opportunities include creating awareness on the availability of data, and creating partnerships with producers of data products to have more data published. Users also shared their experiences of statistics offices that had improved their services by availing data online. Many also provided raw data at little or no cost. The issue of cost for data ignited a good discussion. Some were of the view that the business model would enhance feedback mechanisms, as people buying data would have the opportunity to shape the data they need. Others however, were of the view that national statistical offices (NSOs) should provide raw data at the least cost as theirs was a public function.

Users also shared examples of good practices, such as statistical societies that were increasing user capacity through training of groups such as journalists.

Katharina E Höne

In his introduction, Mr Johannes Jütting (Manager, Partnership in Statistics for Development in the 21st Century (PARIS21)) stressed that existing approaches to capacity developmen

In his introduction, Mr Johannes Jütting (Manager, Partnership in Statistics for Development in the 21st Century (PARIS21)) stressed that existing approaches to capacity development are sometimes not in line with demands. Further, survey results show that there is an increased demand for capacity development to include soft skills, such as leadership skills. He argued that it is high time to move from supply-led to demand-led capacity development approaches.

Mr Serge Kapto (Policy Specialists, Data for Development, UNDP) argued that statisticians need to learn ‘new languages’ in order to go beyond official and ‘traditional’ statistics. Doing so is important in order to achieve development goals, and the sustainable development goals (SDGs) in particular. At the same time, Kapto pointed out that it is crucial to involve the political side and the technical community as well as civil society. Crucially, statisticians need to learn to engage with other constituencies. A such, capacity development needs to take the roles of different actors at various stages of the data production and data analysis process into account.

In response, Jütting highlighted three elements that good capacity building needs to address: (a) people; (b) organisations; and (c) the institutional framework and external environment.

Speaking next, Ms Marina Gandolfo (Head of the International Affairs Division, Italian National Institute of Statistics (ISTAT)) explained the emerging new approaches towards capacity development on the basis of the Cape Town Action Plan for Sustainable Data. She also stressed that those working on developing statistical capacity need to develop a vision beyond the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Tools and guidelines for supporting national statistical capacity are crucial but need to remain flexible. The assessment of actual needs is important to help donors meet the real needs and priorities of countries.

In response, Jütting pointed out that there is a move towards a universal agenda in the case of capacity development. Since the adoption of the SDGs, the focus of capacity development has broadened to also include middle- and high-income countries. This, he argued, is testament to the fact that all countries need to adapt and learn when it comes to statistical capacities.

Ms Phetsamone Sone (Deputy-Head of the Lao Statistics Bureau (LSB), Ministry of Planning and Investment) looked at how her institution has responded and adapted to the Capacity Development 4.0 framework. She emphasised the use of SWOT analysis to better understand the supply and demand side of statistics. She also highlighted the LSB’s ‘country co-operation partnership framework’ and the increased focus on co-operation and coordination with others. Sone also pointed to the challenges encountered on the way, such as adapting institutional arrangements, prioritising among priorities, and strengthening communication.

Mr Yusuf Murangwa (Director-General, National Institute of Statistics of Rwanda (NISR)) stressed five key points that National Statistical Offices (NSOs) need to take into account:

  • Trust. He argued that in order for individuals and organisations to use data, they need to trust the data. Trust, Murangwa argued, is built through communication and building connections.
  • Involvement. Before data collection begins, the needs of data users need to be assessed and feedback on - for example, questionnaires - needs to be collected.
  • Awareness. Those working for NSOs need to spend more time to engage various constituencies to create a broad awareness.
  • Capacity building. Capacity development should enable people to actually access and use data and statistics in a meaningful way.
  • Availability and access. When access to data is requested, the privacy of individuals needs to be ensured and problems associated with linking datasets, such as de-anonymisation, need to be addressed in dialogue with users.

Ms Gemma Van Halderen (Director of the Statistics Division, UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP)) shared the findings of the 2017 survey of the economic statistics capacity situation in the Asia and Pacific region. Based on this, she pointed out that over the last few years, countries have increased the number of statistical core items that they produce. Similarly, statistical law in these countries is in a process of reform to ensure transparency and independence of NSOs. Halderen also pointed out that many NSOs are understaffed and under-resourced and, therefore, reliant on development co-operation with international agencies. Yet, countries in the region are also keen on moving towards being providers of statistical capacity development.

Ms Martine Durand (Director of Statistics and Chief Statistician, OECD) stressed the important connection between trust and statistics. NSOs are essential to the data ecosystem, because they produce trusted statistics, by providing impartial and independent results that are rigorous and quality-driven. However, NSOs are also in the process of soul searching regarding their future role and focus. Duran argued that it will be key for NSOs to engage with the people, solicit user feedback, and entertain suggestions for using new data. NSOs should not be shy to experiment with new sources of data. A big task for NSOs in the future will be to improve statistical literacy and to target students, children, and school teachers in particular.

Mr Lawrence McGill  (Vice-President, Knowledge Services, Foundation Center) focused his intervention on the role of civil society. He mentioned that there is a lack of common language for describing and defining civil society organisations and foundations. However, with the adoption of the SDGs, a common language begins to emerge. McGill went on to introduce three useful tools: the SDGFunders, the SDG Indicator Wizard, and the Global Philanthropy Data Charter.

Grace Mutung'u

The moderator, Mr Rajesh Mirchandani (Chief Communications Officer, UN Foundation), started the session by inviting the panellists to share their insights on the obstacles to reliable data and statistics.

Ms Martine Durand (OECD Chief statistician and Director, Statistics and Data Directorate) set the scene by giving an overview of the topic under discussion. She gave examples of wrong or manipulated data, such as a 2013 incident when the International Monetary Fund (IMF) required that Argentina address inaccuracy in GDP data. She went on to note that a reason for distrusting data was an unreliable source. Durand said that when data is irrelevant, it may also be distrusted, hence the need for granularity in reporting data.

She recommended quality improvement to make data accurate through: following established data processing methodologies; improving metadata; being honest and responsive to data users; protecting statistical independence; and soliciting user feedback. She also called for the monitoring of trust in data.

Mr Georges-Simon Ulrich (Director-General of the Swiss Federal Statistical Office) further explored the reasons for the trust or mistrust of data. According to him, even if a data utopia was achieved - open algorithms, open knowledge and open source - there would still be a need for a critical analysis of the data. Hence, it is important to increase data literacy, so that people can question data and statistics.

Ms Shaida Badiee (Co-founder and Managing-Director, Open Data Watch) introduced the notion of the data ecosystem. She gave three fork recommendations: (a) improving organisation through better national statistical information; (b) more inclusive standards and principles; and (c) measuring the impact of data.

Ms Nnenna Nwakanma (Executive-Director, World Wide Web Foundation) linked the lack of Internet access to the digital divide in the data economy, and spoke about current statistical methods that result in irrelevant data. In one example, when collecting economic data, there was no value apportioned to the domestic work done by women, and they were therefore left out of the data results. She also called on the private sector to supplement official data to improve data driven decision making.

In addressing a question about the quality of data, Ulrich advised that data should not be collected for the sake of collection, but rather, in response to citizens' needs. Badiee reiterated the importance of producing relevant data, while Nwakanma showed how data was linked to important aspects of life. She gave the example of data powering peaceful elections, the alleviation of poverty and improving food yields. She commended the media for telling stories that interpretted voluminous data.

According to the Swiss representative, their experience is that there is greater trust for official data; this is linked to the practice of direct democracy. The Swiss experience is different from that of other countires, such as the United States, which is 'click' economy driven, making web data unreliable. Durand added that trust in data correlated to trust in institutions. She made a case for independant statistics offices.

There was an audience poll with questions about trust in data. The majority thought that distrust in data was fuelled by statistics and did not relate to people’s actual experiences. This was interpreted by the panellists as being a manifestation of the lack of trust in producers and sources of data.

On the question of building trust in data, most of the audience thought that data literacy for citizens was the most effective method. Fewer voted for improved partnerships and standards and principles. The panellists recommended the disaggregation of data, as well as shedding more light on the role of different actors in the data value chain.

In conclusion, the panellists shared recommendations on priority actions for improving trust in data. These included: the development of legal frameworks to protect independence of statistics institutions; applying standards and principles in data work; production of relevant data for the public; feedback mechanisms; and opening up of data silos while also encouraging domain expertise. The role of civil society organisations in enhancing transparency and accountability of the ecosystem was also discussed. Participants learnt about the REACT framework, which encompasses rights based approaches, education, access, content and inclusion of targets.

Katharina E Höne

The session was chaired by Mr Robert Kirkpatrick (Director of UN Global Pulse) and consisted of three presentations by members of UN Global Pulse and a panel discussion among data experts from different stakeholder groups.

Kirkpatrick used his opening remarks to point out that the world has changed with regard to its need for and use of data. Today, in the era of the sustainable development goals (SDGs), crucial data is collected continuously and at high speed and volume. It is often collected without our knowing by machines, and in some cases, owned by the private sector. In comparison, the data needed to measure the millennium development goals (MDGs) was less complex and varied.

He pointed out that there is a general sense that the ‘data revolution’ has been delayed when compared to expert opinion just a few years ago. One of the key points in addressing this is, according to Kirkpatrick, the need to build and rebuild trust among the public when it comes to data, in particular its collection, security, and privacy.

Data is often compared to oil as a resource, however, Kirkpatrick likened data to nuclear energy: there is a lot of potential to meet our needs but unshielded, it is dangerous, can leak, contaminate, and do harm.

Speaking next, Ms Derval Usher (Head of Office, Pulse Lab Jakarta) introduced two tools they developed, and shared some lessons learned. The Haze Gazer is a tool that allows the tracking and managing of forest and peat fires in Indonesia. The tool provides real-time insights on, for example, fire and haze hotspots, the location of the most vulnerable populations, and their response strategies. It combines, satellite images, with data on population density, and user-generated data. This allows the government and local authorities to understand what is happening and where to monitor and respond more effectively. Usher’s second example was the lab’s Cyclone Tool which ingests social media data and displays it in a way that feeds into decision making. She highlighted five lessons learned: (a) the need to identify data champions in the public sector to facilitate early adoption; (b) the importance of designing tools with the user in mind; (c) the advantage of flexible core funding; (d) the need for suitable regulatory frameworks; and (e) the importance of building sustainable and consistent partnerships.

Mr Martin Mubangizi (Data Science Officer, Pulse Lab Kampala (UN Global Pulse)) stressed the importance of scaling up big data projects to achieve the SDGs. He shared two examples. The first example is an artificial intelligence (AI) application that transforms the views of citizens aired on the radio into a form that can be used by governments and authorities to take better decisions. The application transcribes audio to text, then proceeds to data mine the text, and ultimately, generates insights that can be used by governments and other partners. Mubangizi explained that the tool was used by the Ugandan ministry of health to get citizens’ feedback on the quality of health service delivery and to provide early warning on disease outbreak. The second example used satellite images to map urbanisation in Kampala, including the spread of settlements and changes in settlement density. The tool is intended to support infrastructure planning and service provision. Building on his experience, Mubangizi highlighted four challenges for the application of these kind of tools: (a) lack of championship and ownership; (b) lack of awareness; (c) insufficient funding levels; and (d) absence of a suitable legal framework.

Moderated by Ms Paula Hidalgo-Sanchis (Manager, Pulse Lab Kampala (UN Global Pulse)), a panel consisting of Ms Heather Savory (Director-General for Data Capability, Office for National Statistics, UK), Ms Jeanine Vos (Head of SDG Accelerator, GSMA) and Ms Elena Alfaro (Global Head of Data & Open Innovation, BBVA Group) discussed opportunities and pitfalls of big data for sustainable development. Throughout the discussion, panellists emphasised a number of key lessons, and echoed some of the previous points made. In summary, five key points emerged from their discussion.

  • It is crucial to move from pilot projects to applications at scale, and this can only be achieved through co-operation and by avoiding doubling of efforts.
  • It is crucial to start from assessing the needs of governments and other users of data. Applications need to be fit for purpose.
  • Trust building and awareness raising need to take place, as both are crucial to overcome challenges early on and to move to at scale application.
  • Data privacy needs to be ensured. Past experiences have shown that standards of privacy need continuous re-assessment.
  • Working with the private sector is crucial. But these partnerships need a long-term and sustainable approach. It is too late to initiate partnerships when the crisis has hit.

Kirkpatrick closed the panel by comparing the guiding principle that should apply to the future work of data scientists and policy makers to the Hippocratic oath. In other words, the main principle should be: do no harm. This, according to Kirkpatrick, includes avoiding harmful practices and actively preventing potential future harm.



Katharina E Höne

The moderator Ms El Iza Mohamedou (Deputy Manager, PARIS21) stressed that technical assistance and capacity building need to adapt to a changing world and changing data needs. She also highlighted that while technical assistance for building statistical capacities is much needed, partner and provider countries need to carefully assess whether a given proposal is feasible in a given country or sub-state context.

Ms Cara Williams (Chief Advisor of International Relations, Statistics Canada) described the systems in place to monitor and evaluate activities as part of Canadian development co-operation. She described three key stages: (a) pre-evaluation takes place before the project and maps a partner country in relation to their development plan; (b) once a longer-term project commences, a governance structure is put in place, including a logical model and implementation plan; and (c) an end of project evaluation, overseen by Global Affairs Canada, looks at development effectiveness after the project. However, Williams stressed that the informal structure is much more important. Those that are recipients or affected in some way need to be asked whether the framework matches their needs. As such, implementation needs to be flexible and nimble. Beyond that, Williams stressed that building partnerships and relationships that last beyond the project duration is crucial.

In a similar spirit, Mr Neil Jackson (Former Chief Statistician, Department for International Development (DFID), UK) stressed that it is crucial to start from the needs of partner countries. He described how, in order to deliver better results and add value, DFID is running consultations with partner organisations on the opportunities for data and the needs of partners. At the same time, Jackson pointed out that new data sources pose a challenge for National Statistical Organisations (NSOs). This means that NSOs need to commit to modernisation in light of these changes. Projects are under way in Ghana, Uganda, and Rwanda, among others, to support the modernisation of NSOs. The key question for the future of technical assistance and capacity building in this area is how to apply this more widely.

Ms Elena Proden (Specialist, Strategic Implementation of the 2030 Agenda Unit, Division for Satellite Analysis, UNITAR) highlighted the work of UNITAR in training and learning as a special type of technical assistance. She described two initiatives: (a) the development of open sources learning and training toolkits for NSOs and related institutions, which is currently in its pilot phase, with the aim of making it available more widely, and (b) a short-term planning tool for NSOs to support planning a multistakeholder context. Proden also talked about the challenges of measuring impact in this area and some of the approaches UNITAR has developed, which include, for example, evaluating the application of knowledge and skills several months later.

Ms Josie Perez (Philippine Statistics Authority) explained that her agency does not have a specific mechanism for requesting technical assistance. Co-operation in this area usually develops from participation in international conferences, meetings, and seminars. Especially in the context of the SDGs, developed countries have been approaching the NSO to offer assistance. Perez highlighted that there is shift in technical assistance towards new technologies, such as geospatial data, and that it often includes access to relevant software.

Ms Ayush Ariunzaya (Chairwoman, Mongolian NSO) explained that the Mongolian NSO reports to parliament and is in that sense more centrally placed than other NSOs. She also pointed out that Mongolia has a national programme for the development of statistics, which is followed across the government. She argued that ideally, statistics units would exist in all ministries and agencies, but that this is not the case. Further, frequent changes in personnel prevent the building of longer term and reliable individual capacities.

Ariunzaya stressed that technical assistance cannot only involve the collection of statistics. Rather, it also has to involve training the statisticians on the ground. Beyond that, the involvement of the whole statistical ecosystem, beyond the NSO, is important.

Mr Qasem Saeed Al Zoubi (Director-General, Department of Statistics, Jordan) argued that coordination between all the national institutions that produce statistics is key and that capacities need to be built across the entire statistical ecosystem. In addition, coordination with donors and international organisations is also crucial. For example, for achieving the SDGs it will be important to coordinate among all the relevant institutions in the country and the relevant NGOs.

Related to that, the panel as a whole agreed that the SDGs present a growing area of need for statistics and data. In this context, better demographic data on the basis on geospatial data will play an important role. Similarly, it is important to realise that technical assistance would not be for a specific SDG indicator, but should address the national statistical system as a whole and ensure sustainability even beyond the SDGs.

Questions from the audience highlighted the challenges faced by NSOs, the need for including vulnerable groups in the assessment (in particular refugees and migrants), effective capacity building beyond training, and local partnerships for capacity building.


Grace Mutung'u

Moderated by Ms Mona Chalabi (Data Editor, The Guardian), the panel explored the ways of harnessing the power of data for sustainable development. The panellists shared their experiences with policy making, practical examples and the challenges of using data to achieve the sustainable development goals (SDGs).

Mr Mahmoud Mohieldin (Senior Vice President for the 2030 Development Agenda, World Bank) described the 2013 memorandum of understanding (MOU) on statistical activities between his institution and the United Nations. The MOU focussed on enhancing the availability of data, financing data activities and implementation. Since then, the World Bank has published the Atlas of Sustainable Development Goals. They have also initiated the Human Capital Project that ranks 150 countries on their education, health and survival data.

Mr Omar Al Olama (State Minister for Artificial Intelligence, The United Arab Emirates) drew a comparison between human statistical analysis and artificial intelligence (AI), explaining how technology has the capacity to help humans better understand the world. He explained the importance of data to make more informed decision and achieve the SDGs. He therefore called upon policy makers to invest in understanding technology and tackling policy questions arising from the use of new technologies.

Ms Harpinder Collacott  (Development Initiatives) emphasised the need for connections between the data community and political actors. She proposed making use of administrative data such as birth and death records, making data transparent and accessible to all, and improving data communications.

Mr Clint Brown (Director of Product Engineering, Esri) traced the evolution of geographical information systems (GIS), mentioning the silos that existed in data systems and how computing systems such as cloud technology were revolutionising data sharing. He gave examples of GIS, such as Sentinel, that had been uploaded for use, and called for more collaboration and appropriate access to information.

In response to a question on data accuracy, Brown noted that the private sector players have the resources and leeway to experiment and help in meeting the SDGs. He gave examples of commercial players - like his organisation - that were donating technology and skills development to non-governmental organisations.

Mohieldin related to the SDGs' rallying call, ‘leave no one behind’. He stated that in order to know who was being left behind, there is a need for official identification. He noted that data on people correlated with income levels, with low income countries only having about 40% of their population officially identified. This was followed by middle income countries with about 60%, and high income countries with over 90% identification rates.

Al Olama recalled how development in the past was linked to the availability of resources and talent, and noted that there are countries with resources which lack talent. In this age, data was a major resource and therefore talent was shifting to systems. He was however concerned about responsible development and therefore accentuated the need for inclusion in data processing plans and activities. His views were echoed by Collacott who spoke of the importance of inclusion when monitoring SDGs. She lamented that those likely to be left behind - persons with a disability, women and children - were usually the poorest, hence typically outside official datasets. She said that monitoring should include feedback data from the people, for the people to validate data about themselves.

The session ended with the panellists calling for more frameworks for partnerships. Countries were encouraged to develop policies for data to promote trust in data systems. The need for technical co-operation was underscored, and participants were asked to shift from 'data for data' to data for development and data for people.


Katharina E Höne

Moderated by Mr Ernest Chi Cho (United Nations Economic Commission for Africa), the panel addressed a host of questions related to National Statistical Offices (NSOs), the statistical data ecosystem they operate in, and the interactions and processes they find themselves in. The panel then widened its focus to consider the role of non-state actors, in particular academia, journalists, and civil society.

Speaking first, Ms Josie Perez (Philippine Statistics Authority) emphasised that NSOs are not just data collectors and data processors. A key task of NSOs is also the promotion of the use of statistics. This means that data users need to be informed adequately and NSOs need to promote the information they have available. For this, broad participation in dialogue between policy makers and NSOs is key.

Ms Irena Krizman (former Director-General of the Statistical Office of the Republic Slovenia) focused on the interaction between policy makers and NSOs. She emphasised that interaction should take place at three levels: (a) heads of NSOs need to have or develop a direct line of communication and relationship with the government and ministries, (b) at the expert level, key staff in NSOs should advise on the measurability of policies and relevant indicators, and (c) adjustments at the organisational level of NSOs should support dialogue and cooperation between NSOs and the government. Krizman also highlighted the advantages of this cooperation: improved regulation with measurable outcomes, meeting data needs for timely planning; accountability for the use of finances and resources by NSOs, and better policies.

Mr Yusuf Murangwa (Director General of the National Institute of Statistics of Rwanda) emphasised that good practice starts with asking policy makers about their (data) needs. This is a first step for bringing policy makers and statisticians into dialogue. On the side of statisticians, Murangwa identified a need to build negotiation and communication skills. He argued that statistics are a good product, but better communication is needed to promote statistics and emphasise their power and relevance. He also cautioned that NSOs need to preserve their independence while increasing their dialogue with policy makers.

Mr Pali Lehohla (former Statistician-General of South Africa, former head of Statistics South Africa) described statistics as the most public of information systems and that, therefore, the priority should be on accountability to the people. In particular, the (added) value of the information needs to be made visible. All in all, Lehohla stressed that we need to make sure that statistics can play a transformative role in the lives of citizens.

Mr Ben Kiregyera (Director of the African Center for Statistics at the United Nations Commission for Africa) described NSOs as having a dual mandate: they provide statistics and they coordinate the national statistics system. However, he also identified a lack of resources and coordination, especially for newer NSOs and those in developing countries. Looking at the broader picture, he argued that there is a need of modernisation and effective coordination of the national statistical system, which should be led by NSOs.

Mr Philipp Schönrock (Director of Cepei) expressed his concern about leaving non-state actors, in particular academia, journalists, and civil society, out of the conversation. He argued that these non-state actors are part of the value chain of data and statistics. First, academia and similar actors create much needed capacities. Second, non-state actors generate additional evidence through their work, which can supplement the work of NSOs. Third, non-state actors are important users of the statistics provided by NSOs. Without also keeping non-state actors in mind, he argued, it would be hard to understand and improve the statistical data ecosystem.

Mr Misha Belkindas (Managing-Director of ODW Consulting) stressed the role of academia and journalists in delivering the message about the importance of data and statistics to policy makers. These non-state actors play an important role in communicating to a wider audience. Blekindas also argued that in order to be effective, NSOs need to produce trust. Their outputs need to be trusted by the wider stakeholder community in order to be effective.

Mr Michel Mouyelo-Katoula (Lead Consultant at the African Development Bank) also stressed that a greater focus needs to be placed on non-state actors. They have an important role to play because they have very specific and local knowledge in their area of expertise. Mouyelo-Katoula also called for an increased focus on citizen engagement, data consciousness (based on education and literacy programmes on all levels), and data journalism (including the importance of data story telling).

Further discussion among the panellists and with the audience raised questions of the accountability of NSOs, the broader societal value of statistics, and the need for reshaping statistical ecosystems (including moving from being data users to data producers in the context of African countries).


The United Nations World Data Forum 2018 will take place on 22-24 October 2018 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. The Forum will be hosted by the Federal Competitiveness and Statistics Authority with the support of the Statistics Division of the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, under the guidance of the United Nations Statistical Commission and the High-level Group for Partnership, Coordination and Capacity-Building for Statistics for the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

The Forum is organised by the High-level Group for Partnership, Coordination and Capacity-Building for Statistics for the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (HLG-PCCB) and it will be focused on the following thematic areas:

  • New approaches to capacity development for better data
  • Innovations and synergies across data ecosystems
  • Leaving no one behind
  • Understanding the world through data
  • Building trust in data and statistics
  • How far have we come?

For more information about the Forum, visit the dedicated webpage.



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