Harnessing the Data Revolution to Achieve the Sustainable Development Goals
September 5, 2017
Functioning societies collect accurate data and utilize the evidence to inform policy. The use of evidence derived from data in policymaking requires the capability to collect and analyze accurate data, clear administrative channels through which timely evidence is made available to decisionmakers, and the political will to rely on—and ideally share—the evidence. The collection of accurate and timely data, especially in the developing world, is often logistically difficult, not politically expedient, and/or expensive.
Before launching its second round of global goals—the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)—the United Nations convened a High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda. As part of its final report, the Panel called for a “data revolution” and recommended the formation of an independent body to lead the charge.1 The report resulted in the creation of the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data (GPSDD)—an independent group of countries, companies, data communities, and NGOs—and the SDG Data Labs, a private initiative partnered with the GPSDD. In doing so the United Nations and its partners signaled broad interest in data and evidence-based policymaking at a high level. In fact, the GPSDD calls for the “revolution in data” by addressing the “crisis of non-existent, inaccessible or unreliable data.”2 As this report shows, this is easier said than done.
This report defines the data revolution as an unprecedented increase in the volume and types of data—and the subsequent demand for them—thanks to the ongoing yet uneven proliferation of new technologies. This revolution is allowing governments, companies, researchers, and citizens to monitor progress and drive action, often with real-time, dynamic, disaggregated data. Much work will be needed to make sure the data revolution reaches developing countries facing difficult challenges (i.e., before the data revolution fully becomes the data revolution for sustainable development). It is important to think of the revolution as a multistep process, beginning with building basic knowledge and awareness of the value of data. This is followed by a more specific focus on public private partnerships, opportunities, and constraints regarding collection and utilization of data for evidence-based policy decisions.
Unlike the common perception of “revolution” as being relatively quick, broad, and transformational, the data revolution may be slow, country context specific, and incremental. Building on the momentum created by the adoption of the SDGs in late 2015,3 the international community can have a critical role to play in supporting national agendas and driving development.
This report analyzes the challenges and opportunities that exist in the pursuit of the data revolution. It considers the challenges faced by two developing countries—Laos and Myanmar—in the broader context of what will be needed to enable “leapfrog” data technologies to take hold and ultimately drive the data revolution without following the linear progression of development laid out by OECD countries. To achieve this outcome, developing countries will need to build domestic institutional capacity to use and maintain new technologies, understand and analyze the data collected, and identify and implement change based on that analysis.
Many outside the developing world are considering the endless possibilities presented by “big data.” For many in the developing world—especially those in statistical agencies and other entities responsible for data collection, dissemination, and analysis—big data is not even on the radar. These governments face enough challenges to utilization of “small data” and evidence more broadly in policymaking. Even when they acknowledge the benefits of creating an environment in which leapfrog data technologies could flourish and support such policies, further execution challenges remain.
This report categorizes the many challenges facing developing country governments on the road to the data revolution—and then, ideally, measurable sustainable development—as follows:
- Addressing capacity constraints at all levels
- Creating the appropriate enabling environment for leapfrog data technologies to have transformational impact
- Confronting data sharing, ownership, and privacy concerns
- Navigating complex political environments
Thankfully, developing country governments are not alone. While funding has not increased to the extent necessary, the international community has embraced its post-MDG role in the data revolution. There are several ways this support can be strengthened.
This report provides the following recommendations to the international community to play a constructive role in the data revolution:
- Don’t fixate on big data alone. Focus on the foundation necessary to facilitate leapfrogs around all types of data: small, big, and everywhere in between.
- Increase funding for capacity building as part of an expansion of broader educational development priorities.
- Highlight, share, and support enlightened government-driven approaches to data.
- Increase funding for the data revolution and coordinate donor efforts.
- Coordinate UN data revolution-related activities closely with an expanded GPSDD.
- Secure consensus on data sharing, ownership, and privacy-related international standards.
This report shows that a solid foundation to enable leapfrog data technologies can be fully realized is critical . The ability to collect and utilize accurate data—however small or large—matters, especially in developing countries. However, there must be a solid foundation of infrastructure, skills, and political will on which to build. Promising examples of opportunities for deploying such technologies can be identified; strong enabling foundations will be essential for these opportunities to achieve their full transformational potential. A number of examples of how this is currently being done are presented in this report. These should be seen as useful, tangible, and transferable examples of how to incorporate leapfrog data technologies into policy environments.
This report also demonstrates the importance of the international community. Through the GPSDD and other multi- and bilateral channels, the international community has a significant role to play in realizing transformative innovation through evidence-based policymaking in the developing world.
Though not without its bumps and turns, the road to the data revolution is paved with promise and possibility.
 High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda, A New Global Partnership: Eradicate Poverty and Transform Economies through Sustainable Development (New York: United Nations, 2013), https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/content/documents/8932013-05%20-%20HLP%20Report%20-%20A%20New%20Global%20Partnership.pdf.
 UN General Assembly, “Resolution Adopted by the General Assembly on 25 September 2015: 70/1. Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development,” http://www.un.org/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=A/RES/70/1&Lang=E.