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The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its 17 accompanying Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) recognize the desperate need for more and better data if we are to eradicate poverty, stop rising levels of inequality, and tackle climate change.  In order to see how services are working and whether they are reaching those most in need, and to anticipate future opportunities, shocks, risks, and trends so we can adapt accordingly, we need data and information systems that tell us what is happening in real time (or at least in a timely way) and enable us to understand people’s unique vulnerabilities and challenges. Governments and citizens alike must be able to access this rich world of data to plan, organize, and achieve their objectives; hold each other accountable; and catalyze change, whilst also ensuring personal liberty, security, and equality of access. This is what one might call a Data Utopia.

Achieving this utopia will be far from easy. It will require the transformation of current institutional structures and new public, private, and non-governmental partnerships. To open and share data, and to ensure respect for and careful handling of citizen’s personal data, we must adopt new technologies, data collection methodologies, standards, policies, and principles.

On 17 June, 2017 SDSN’s expert thematic network on data and the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data gathered world leading experts, government representatives, and practitioners to discuss the challenges of establishing multi-stakeholder partnerships to produce data for sustainable development.

 

Enrico Giovannini (co-chair of SDSN’s data network) provided a thought-provoking keynote that stressed the need for new multi-stakeholder partnerships to help governments (and their national statistical offices) produce modern, timely data. He also dared to ask what role data should play in what some might call a ‘post-truth society’, in which politicians respond to voter interest, and do not govern on the basis of facts and figures.

Further challenges were raised by Dozie Ezigbalike, who questioned the capacity of African countries to harness the data revolution, and Laveesh Bhandari, who suggested decentralization was required to enable governments to really understand their population and how best to serve them. Proposing a way to help overcome some of these stresses, Shaida Badiee (co-chair of SDSN’s data network) steered the panel discussion back to the role of multi-stakeholder partnerships. Participants proceeded to highlight the pivotal role that private companies can play in advancing speed, accuracy, and automation; they also noted how helpful citizens groups and academics can be in verifying data and ensuring it reflects its social context.

A common thread through the discussion was data interoperability. How do we encourage technical crossover between data sets, while also fostering trust and understanding between official statisticians and other data producers? Bob Chen (co-chair of SDSN’s data network) and Jenna Slotin (GPSDD Senior Director) pointed out the critical role that platforms like the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data can play to help broker these partnerships and encourage mutual trust and a common language, as well as the role these groups can play – working with the UN Statistical Commission – to ensure that non-governmental actors are brought into formal processes and held accountable. But, as Tom Moultrie was quick to mention, open data will mean multiple different data sources, standards, and methods – what Saikiko Fukuda-Parr later referred to as a potential ‘free-market for data.’ In a world filled with evidence and lots of potential answers, what are the implications for the post-truth society?

These issues and many more will be considered in SDSN’s forthcoming flagship report on the Data Revolution, to be published in September 2017. For more information please contact Jessica Espey, coordinating author and SDSN Senior Adviser (Jessica.espey@unsdsn.org), or Melika Edquist, Manager of SDSN’s data network (melika.edquist@unsdsn.org).

SDSN’s Expert Network smiling at the end of two days talking data