The data revo­lu­tion for sus­tain­able de­vel­op­ment

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

There is grow­ing recog­ni­tion that the suc­cess of the Sus­tain­able De­vel­op­ment Goals (SDGs), which will be adopted on Septem­ber 25 at a spe­cial United Na­tions sum­mit, will de­pend on the abil­ity of gov­ern­ments, busi­nesses, and civil so­ci­ety to har­ness data for de­ci­sion­mak­ing. The key, as I have high­lighted be­fore, is to in­vest in build­ing in­no­va­tive data sys­tems that draw on new sources of real-time data for sus­tain­able de­vel­op­ment.

We live in a data-driven world. Ad­ver­tis­ers, in­sur­ance com­pa­nies, na­tional se­cu­rity agen­cies, and po­lit­i­cal ad­vis­ers have al­ready learned to tap into big data, some­times to our cha­grin; so, too, have count­less sci­en­tists and re­searchers, thereby ac­cel­er­at­ing progress on new dis­cov­er­ies. But the global de­vel­op­ment com­mu­nity has been slower to ben­e­fit – not least be­cause too much de­vel­op­ment data are still be­ing col­lected us­ing cum­ber­some ap­proaches that lag be­hind to­day’s tech­no­log­i­cal ca­pa­bil­i­ties.

One way to im­prove data col­lec­tion and use for sus­tain­able de­vel­op­ment is to cre­ate an ac­tive link be­tween the pro­vi­sion of ser­vices and the col­lec­tion and pro­cess­ing of data for de­ci­sion-mak­ing. Take health-care ser­vices. Ev­ery day, in re­mote vil­lages of de­vel­op­ing coun­tries, com­mu­nity health work­ers help pa­tients fight dis­eases (such as malaria), get to clin­ics for check­ups, re­ceive vi­tal im­mu­ni­sa­tions, ob­tain di­ag­noses (through telemedicine), and ac­cess emer­gency aid for their in­fants and young chil­dren (such as for chronic un­der-nutri­tion). But the in­for­ma­tion from such vis­its is usu­ally not col­lected, and even if it is put on pa­per, it is never used again.

We now have a much smarter way to pro­ceed. Com­mu­nity health work­ers are in­creas­ingly sup­ported by smart-phone ap­pli­ca­tions, which they can use to log pa­tient in­for­ma­tion at each visit. That in­for­ma­tion can go di­rectly onto public-health dash­boards, which health man­agers can use to spot dis­ease out­breaks, fail­ures in sup­ply chains, or the need to bol­ster tech­ni­cal staff. Such sys­tems can pro­vide a real-time log of vi­tal events, in­clud­ing births and deaths, and even use so-called ver­bal au­top­sies to help iden­tify causes of death. And, as part of elec­tronic med­i­cal records, the in­for­ma­tion can be used at fu­ture vis­its to the doc­tor or to re­mind pa­tients of the need for fol­low-up vis­its or med­i­cal in­ter­ven­tions.

Ed­u­ca­tion pro­vides the same kind of vast op­por­tu­nity. Cur­rently, school en­roll­ment rates tend to be cal­cu­lated based on stu­dent regis­tra­tions at the be­gin­ning of the school year, even though ac­tual at­ten­dance may be far be­low the reg­is­tra­tion rate. More­over, of­fi­cials wish­ing to re­port higher en­roll­ment rates some­times ma­nip­u­late reg­is­tra­tion data, so we never get an ac­cu­rate pic­ture of who is ac­tu­ally at school.

With mo­bile apps, schools and com­mu­nity ed­u­ca­tion work­ers can log stu­dent and teacher at­ten­dance on a trans­par­ent, real-time ba­sis, and fol­low up more easily with stu­dents who drop out, es­pe­cially for rea­sons that could be over­come through in­formed in­ter­ven­tion by com­mu­nity ed­u­ca­tion work­ers. This in­for­ma­tion can be fed au­to­mat­i­cally into dash­boards that ed­u­ca­tion ad­min­is­tra­tors can use to track progress in key ar­eas.

Such data col­lec­tion can ac­cel­er­ate sus­tain­able de­vel­op­ment by im­prov­ing de­ci­sion-mak­ing. But that is only the first step. The same tech­niques should also be used to col­lect some of the key in­di­ca­tors that mea­sure progress on the SDGs.

In fact, mea­sur­ing progress at fre­quent in­ter­vals, and pub­li­cis­ing the suc­cesses and short­falls, is vi­tal to keep­ing the world on track to meet its am­bi­tious long-term tar­gets. Do­ing so would not only en­able us to re­ward gov­ern­ments that are fos­ter­ing progress; it would also keep lag­gard gov­ern­ments ac­count­able for their weak per­for­mance and, one hopes, mo­ti­vate them to re­dou­ble their ef­forts.

The need for such real-time mea­sure­ment be­came ap­par­ent over the last 15 years, when the world was pur­su­ing the Mil­len­nium De­vel­op­ment Goals. Given that many key in­di­ca­tors are not yet col­lected in real time, but only through la­bo­ri­ous ret­ro­spec­tive house­hold sur­veys, the in­di­ca­tors for the key poverty-re­duc­tion goal are as much as five years out of date for many coun­tries. The world is aim­ing for 2015 tar­gets for poverty, health, and ed­u­ca­tion, with, in some cases, key data only up to 2010.

For­tu­nately, the in­for­ma­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tions tech­nol­ogy revo­lu­tion and the spread of broad­band cov­er­age nearly ev­ery­where can quickly make such time lags a thing of the past. As in­di­cated in the re­port

we must mod­ernise the prac­tices used by sta­tis­ti­cal of­fices and other public agen­cies, while tap­ping into new sources of data in a thought­ful and cre­ative way that com­ple­ments tra­di­tional ap­proaches.

Through more ef­fec­tive use of smart data – col­lected dur­ing ser­vice de­liv­ery, eco­nomic trans­ac­tions, and re­mote sens­ing – the fight against ex­treme poverty will be bol­stered; the global energy sys­tem will be made much more ef­fi­cient and less pol­lut­ing; and vi­tal ser­vices such as health and ed­u­ca­tion will be made far more ef­fec­tive and ac­ces­si­ble.

With this break­through in sight, sev­eral gov­ern­ments, in­clud­ing that of the United States, as well as busi­nesses and other part­ners, have an­nounced plans to launch a new “Global Part­ner­ship for Sus­tain­able De­vel­op­ment Data” at the UN this month. The new part­ner­ship aims to strengthen data col­lec­tion and mon­i­tor­ing ef­forts by rais­ing more funds, en­cour­ag­ing knowl­edge-shar­ing, ad­dress­ing key bar­ri­ers to ac­cess and use of data, and iden­ti­fy­ing new big-data strate­gies to up­grade the world’s sta­tis­ti­cal sys­tems. The UN Sus­tain­able De­vel­op­ment So­lu­tions Net­work will sup­port the new Global Part­ner­ship by cre­at­ing a new The­matic Net­work on Data for Sus­tain­able De­vel­op­ment, which will bring to­gether lead­ing data sci­en­tists, thinkers, and aca­demics from across mul­ti­ple sec­tors and dis­ci­plines to form a cen­ter of data ex­cel­lence. We are de­lighted to be chair­ing this net­work, which has at its core a com­mit­ment to turn facts and fig­ures into real de­vel­op­ment progress. We firmly be­lieve the data revo­lu­tion can be a revo­lu­tion for sus­tain­able de­vel­op­ment, and we welcome part­ners from around the world to join us.

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