Even before global adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals in the fall of 2015, Colombia had emerged as an early leader in its commitment to using the SDGs as a guiding framework for its national plan. In the first months of the SDG era, Colombia has demonstrated its seriousness by aligning the priorities of each of its government agencies—chief among them DANE, the national statistics office charged with launching and maintaining a national monitoring framework to track progress towards the SDGs.

Under the direction of President Santos and the leadership of Mauricio Perfetti, DANE has embraced the “Todos por un nuevo país” campaign as a mandate to re-orient its strategic plans and re-imagine the role of the national statistics office in Colombia’s national development. The SDGs provide an opportunity for DANE not just to measure progress, but to drive it. Of the 231 global indicators released by the Inter-Agency and Expert Group on SDGs (IAEG-SDG), DANE identified that 54% of the indicators were available within existing datasets, but could be improved. Another 30% were in definite need of improvement or presented opportunities to be measured in new ways, including education and environmental indicators. A full 16% had no existing measurements or methodology. Among the 16% of new indicators provided by the SDGs, some are tied to real and immediate policy implications, such as the percentage of food wasted and proportion of women in private sector leadership positions.

Looking ahead, DANE’s mandate is to find appropriate means for measuring and monitoring these indicators, and to share the results with the public, in an effort to drive change. A good example relates to food waste; according to the Minister of Planning, when the first approximations of percentage of food waste were released to the public the shockingly high number – 34% of all Colombia’s food production became food waste – became a national outcry. That so much food should be wasted in a country where many go hungry dominated news cycles, and today there are two bills before the National Congress that explicitly address this issue.

Encouraging a culture of innovation

To encourage the statisticians at DANE to rise to the opportunity presented by the SDGs, DANE launched a Smart Data unit within the new Office of Innovation and Learning. The goal, explicitly stated and known to all, is to foster a culture of innovation and learning across the institution. The innovation team launched a competition, open to all DANE employees, for pilot projects to collect new data, collect old data in a new way, or improve the quality or usefulness of statistics for DANE and implementing agencies across the government. By valuing the expertise, the perspective, and the creativity of current employees, DANE was able to generate the kinds of insights and ideas they had hoped for while creating considerable buzz (and buy-in) across the institution. Employees rose to the challenge. Eighty-four project proposals were submitted, ten finalists were selected, and five projects were given funding and the go-ahead to try out a new idea, to make the necessary partnerships, to build a new app, identify a new methodology, or to follow a new question that has not yet been answered.

Projects ranged from subjective poverty measurements using social media, to using satellite imagery to map urban land use, to harnessing the internet for up-to-date information on businesses. One project, SICOLE, is particularly novel. SICOLE is a user-centered project to provide a one-stop-shop for rapid and reliable education data, which currently exists across 29 different public and private sources. By following two indicators to start, and creating an interface useable for teachers, parents, and policymakers alike, the ambition of the SICOLE project in Colombia has implications for many sectors and indicators: to create vibrant and responsive data, in centralized, accessible data bases, which can be used for monitoring progress and making real-time decision-making.

Marc Levy, a member of SDSN’s Data for Development Thematic Network, will include the work of the SICOLE team in the forthcoming Living Manual for Demand-Driven SDG Information Systems. The Living Manual is one of the data network’s Solutions Initiatives, aiming to promote new technologies, institutional mechanisms, and policies that can dramatically accelerate progress towards sustainable development. This project aims to explore and design new data infrastructures for policy-making and to enable prioritized decision-making.

Engaging globally

The five innovation projects were presented to members of the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data in late April, during a weeklong series of discussions and workshops at the Bogota Chamber of Commerce. DANE, a member of the Global Partnership, invited representatives of academic institutions, civil society, the private sector, and partner governments to engage with their teams to discuss challenges and successes to date in establishing a roadmap for monitoring Colombia’s progress towards the SDGs. The Innovation team welcomed feedback from the group of international experts, as their commitment to documenting the failures as well as the successes of pilots is integral to their new culture of learning.

DANE’s leadership has been proactive in promoting knowledge sharing, innovation, and learning at the institution. Accordingly, a second competition will be launched in the near future. It will be much more ambitious, and will put specific challenges to the employees of DANE to build methodologies and measurements for the SDGs. DANE’s Smart Data team is eager to engage external partners in and outside of the Colombian government, and to bring the culture of innovation underway in DANE to other agencies.