What Counts? Harnessing the Data Revolution for Sustainable Development

Today, data is generated much more widely and frequently than before, thanks to greater awareness of data use, the evolution of software, and better technical and analytical tools. This data revolution is paving the way for profound transformations in how we approach development, analyse the challenges and better monitor the sustainable development goals.

This data revolution offers opportunities to make more informed political choices and decisions that can advance human development. However, information is power, and the data revolution entails inherent risks to our privacy and to human rights.

How can the data revolution benefit all, instead of widening inequalities, increasing insecurity, and threatening human rights? How can we harness the data revolution for development — increasing data literacy, strengthening means of verification and analysis and minimise the potential risks? These are the key questions that the UN Secretary-General’s Independent Expert Advisory Group on a Data Revolution for Sustainable Development (IEAG) grappled with and which are critical for the next global development agenda.

On May 8, as part of the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation/UNDP seminar series on the Post-2015 Development Agenda, two speakers shared their insights and recommendations for the future of data and development: Eva Jespersen, Deputy Director of UNDP Human Development Report Office and member of the IEAG, outlined the key issues and challenges, and shared the current thinking and recommendations of the Expert Group and Viveka Palm from Statistics Sweden and Royal Institute of Technology, provided insights on the data revolution from a national perspective.

The IEAG was tasked with examining how to fill data gaps, strengthen national statistical capacities and capitalize on opportunities related to innovation and new data, including big data from citizens, businesses, public and private institutions, satellites and social media. They argued that a data revolution must also create a “data liberation,” and stimulate greater demand for data and greater capacity to use data.

Big data has the potential to facilitate the measurement of “those aspects of human development that count but are not yet counted” and to produce instantaneous statistics through “nowcasting”. At the same time, we are cautioned that big data must be used wisely and ethically and we must be aware of the potential risks related to data privacy. In addition, there is a need to improve data literacy giving people the skills necessary to interpret and use data. Only then can we ensure that decisions are based on evidence and improve the quality of decisions and hold policymakers accountable.

The speakers also discussed the conceptual and statistical challenges in measuring human development including, for example, missing data on people’s well-being — particularly for “invisible” and vulnerable groups, and failure to base decisions on evidence.

For more information about the speakers, and to download their presentations, please click here.

To read the IAEG Data Revolution Report, “A World That Counts”, please click here.