This sub-session provided a global snapshot of the progress made towards achieving the sustainable development goals (SDGs). The moderator, Ms Emily Pryor (Executive Director of Data2X) stressed the critical need for good quality development data to measure progress and implement the SDGs, explaining that the use of disaggregated data by policymakers is already leading to changes in the lives of people who have previously been left behind. She added that such examples are important to share in order to accelerate investments in, and commitment to, data.
Explaining that development will only be sustainable ‘if we take women and girls into account’, Ms Asa Regner (Assistant-Secretary-General and Deputy Executive Director of UN Women) emphasised the need for gender-disaggregated data in order to reach the goals. Considering that only less than a third of the data needed to monitor the SDGs has been collected, she called for more data, and in particular, better gender statistics.
Mr Padraig Dalton (Director-General of Central Statistics Office of Ireland) noted the interdependency between decision-makers and statisticians, quoting from the UN Data Revolution Report: ‘Data are the lifeblood of decision-making and the raw material for accountability’. For this purpose, the role of a National Statistical Institute (NSI) is to turn data into information, knowledge, and insight that is usable for decision-making. In addition to gathering more data, Dalton added that there is a need for high quality data – if necessary, from non-traditional sources – as well as independent and transparent NSIs, comparability across countries, and improved communication of statistics, so that policymakers understand their value. To mitigate the institutional challenges faced by many NSIs, they should work more closely together and share their experiences. In addition, governments could facilitate access to relevant data and invest in the modernisation of NSIs.
Ms Grace Bediako (Acting Director-General of the National Development Planning Commission of Ghana (NDPC)) presented the process of SDG implementation in Ghana and explained that the government ensures the representation of statistics across the entire implementation system. The NDPC has worked with the NSI to evaluate the statistical capacity in the country and found that there were particular capacity gaps at the district level. In addition, she highlighted the potential of the population’s participation in the monitoring efforts.
Ms Sofia Monsalve Suarez (Secretary-General, FIAN International) emphasised the need to look more closely into areas where the indicators insufficiently address the scope of the SDGs. For example, the indicators related to SDG 10 (reduced inequalities) do not take landownership into account. Furthermore, she highlighted the importance of qualitative data, especially information from people who are most affected by environmental issues, poverty, and hunger. Finally, she raised questions about the utility of big data, which risks being manipulated and unrepresentative, and she urged to avoid ‘giving priority to some types of data and disregarding relevant data that people in affected communities might have’.
Elaborating on the utility of big data, Dalton explained that while unstructured big data currently has limited potential due to the difficulty of extracting insights from such data, structured big data – such as satellite imagery and mobile network data – could be valuable. He added that ‘big data on its own is not the answer’, but that it adds value when it is integrated with other data sources.
On the issue of the harmonisation of qualitative and quantitative data, Bediako underscored the importance of developing methodologies and national monitoring systems that allow for input and feedback from communities, while respecting their confidentiality. Regner added that to understand the data, we need to know ‘what’s behind’ the numbers.
Opening up the discussion, several delegations and organisations took the floor. Switzerland called for investment in NSIs and improved data comparability, coordination, and collaboration. Italy added that NSIs ‘can’t do anything but innovate and improve’, and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Developmen (OECD) stressed the need to find ways to measure the trans-boundary dimensions of SDG targets. The Major Group on Disabilities noted that data on disability is lacking at the global level, warning that ‘if we are not counted, we do not count, and we remain invisible’. Tanzania emphasised the need to collect data about the rural poor, and the Major Group on Indigenous People called for an ‘innovative and participatory tool for disaggregation by ethnicity’.
In their closing remarks, Regner highlighted the need to work on identifying and strengthening gender disaggregated data, and Dalton emphasised the potential of collaborations. Bediako explored the potential of new ways to measure poverty, such as mobile phone data and administrative data, and of identifying the kinds of data that can be collected to benefit policymakers and other users on a case-by-case basis.
By Barbara Rosen Jacobson