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To mark the launch of Counting on the World, the new report from SDSN’s Thematic Research Network on Data and Statistics (SDSN TReNDS), students and experts came together for a three-part Learning Session on Data for Development at the Columbia School of Journalism. The workshop event enabled participants to engage with leading experts on the topic of how to build modern, fit for purpose, national data systems for sustainable development. The three part event tackled some of the key challenges highlighted in the report, which are the focus of SDSN’s data Solutions Initiatives, including data sharing and interoperability, increased use of geospatial data for disaggregated monitoring, and subnational monitoring of the SDGs. The Learning Session was a side event of the annual International Conference on Sustainable Development, which gathers thousands of students, policy-makers and practitioners from many disciplines to share ideas and research on sustainable development.

Enrico Giovannini, co-chair of TReNDS, provided opening remarks at the event, reflecting on the urgent challenges facing so many countries around the world, looking to implement the SDGs but unable to undertake adequate data-based planning and monitoring.  He called for greater data sharing between public and private actors and innovation in knowledge management systems. He also highlighted one of the central recommendation of the TReNDS’ Counting on the World report – the appointment of Chief Data Officers to coordinate new data actors and maintain political commitment to data.

The first panel session, chaired by TReNDS co-chair Shaida Badiee of Open Data Watch, focused on lessons from SDSN’s Reconciling Development Data Solution Initiative. Alex Fischer of Oxford University presented his research on the interoperability of data relating to water quality in Bangladesh. Philipp Schonrock of CEPEI then presented the group’s work making data from Bogotá’s Chamber of Commerce available to the Colombian government’s Department of Statistics. In both examples, Schonrock and Fischer emphasized that technological solutions are not enough. A data reconciliation platform may be helpful for a discreet technical challenge but more often than not the biggest setback to reconciliation is institutional inertia and human capacity. Building knowledge capacity and trust are fundamental steps in data partnerships.

The second panel featured William Sonnetag of The Group on Earth Observations (GEO) and Alex de Sherbinin of Columbia University’s Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN) and emphasized the role geospatial data in SDG monitoring. Both panelists provided an overview on the rise of geospatial data, both in widespread use and ever-increasing utility. They emphasised the relevance of geospatial data for the majority of the SDG targets, particularly those relating with geographic boundaries, such as cities targets, and those relying about population data. Geospatial data is particularly useful for the Leave No One Behind agenda, as remote and rural communities often find their needs go unmeasured and unmet.

They called for continued advocacy with governments and space agencies to open data and further refinement of open, accessible gridded population datasets such as that prepared by CIESIN (GPW). During the ensuing discussion, participants highlighted issues like the accessibility of geospatial data to sub-national actors, the necessity to further define and standardize geographic boundaries across countries, and the risks of highly disaggregated spatial data for data privacy.

The final panel focused on the practical and pressing challenge of implementing the SDGs at a subnational level. Cid Blanco, of Casa Fluminense, represented the metro region of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and a new coalition-driven Metropolitan-level Observatory for the SDGs, an initiative fueled in part as a response to political impasses at the national level. Seema Iyer, of the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance, shared the process of designing locally-relevant SDG indicators in Baltimore, USA. Nilda Mesa of Columbia University’s Urban Design Lab discussed how New York City’s long-term sustainability plan was developed in lockstep with the SDGs, emphasizing the potential of committed leadership to integrate the equity agenda present in the SDGs into practical local plans and monitoring strategies. Finally, Derek Ouyang of Stanford University presented the work of his Sustainable Urban Systems team, first in San Jose, and now across the Bay Area, developing an SDG platform that uses available data at various levels of disaggregation, from the block level up to the metropolitan region.  Panelists seconded each others’ insights and built off one another’s recommendations, emphasizing the potential of a growing community of practice among the first movers in the sub-national SDG movement.