By Jay Neuner with support from Deirdre Appel, Shaida Badiee, Hayden Dahmm, Melika Edquist, and Jessica Espey

At this year’s High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF), the UN and its extended community hosted discussions on global progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). A question loomed large above the chatter: How can we accurately determine what progress we’ve made when so many challenges remain in gathering and using data for measurement of the SDGs? Stakeholders of every stripe issued clarion calls throughout HLPF: We want – and need – higher quality, more quantity of, and more inclusive data on the SDGs. As the conversations at HLPF revealed, there is no single, best approach to reach this SDG “data utopia”.

In the opening session, speakers from international organizations, national statistics offices, and civil society addressed cross-cutting data issues, including gaps in country capacity to produce the data needs of the SDGs, data innovations and data linking, and financing for data to support the SDGs. (This last conversation was led by TReNDS’ own Shaida Badiee, co-founder and managing director of Open Data Watch.) A number of these conversations revolved around limited capacity and funding for data use and production for the SDGs. Similarly, new approaches and extant concerns about data were raised in the Voluntary National Reviews presented throughout HLPF. Bhutan, Jamaica, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, and Sri Lanka cited the value of disaggregated data for monitoring their SDG progress, while Ecuador was among those stressing the need for financing. Sri Lanka also mentioned the value of digital platforms for their data disaggregation efforts. (Read overviews on the Voluntary National Reviews at HLPF via IISD here and here.)

Related side events included the launch of the Inclusive Data Charter, an initiative of partners to the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data (GPSDD). The charter lays out a set of principles on leaving no one behind to which stakeholders can commit, with an emphasis on disaggregated data. Its launch event profiled approaches such as national-level indicator integration in the Philippines, as well as examples of partnerships to achieve these principles from the likes of UNICEF. (You can read more about the event on the GPSDD website here.)

Throughout these events, two schools of thought battled for dominance: systems investment versus innovation. National representatives led the call for revitalization of national statistics office capacities, while non-governmental stakeholders cited emerging technology and other innovations that can complement or leapfrog traditional approaches.

Jeffrey Sachs, Director of SDSN, was among those citing a joint approach: investment in long-term systems building, while concurrently using innovative techniques – such as ICT-based data collection and big data analysis – to provide real- (or near real) time interim data complementing official statistics for key SDG indicators. In a final call to action at the event on financing data for the SDGs, he challenged all stakeholders – from governments, to civil society, to the private sector – to work together to identify interim measures for a minimum of one key SDG indicator per goal. With lynchpin poverty statistics, for example, running years out of date, a country may be measuring a reality that no longer exists. Interim data can provide proxies for those indicators, enabling timely action to address gaps in achieving relevant SDGs.

The initiative POPGRID (co-led by TReNDS co-chair Bob Chen) is one such attempt to foster collaboration, supporting innovative approaches to population measurement. It promotes cooperation among data providers, users, and sponsors engaged to design harmonized data products and services, specifically for georeferenced data on population, human settlements and infrastructure. Among the potential approaches it is investigating: using earth observation data on dwellings or mobile telecommunications data to estimate populations. While this data does not replace official population figures derived from a census, it can provide more timely interim data. This would give stakeholders the right information to connect at the right time and with the right resources.

As the SDG deadline fast approaches, these jointly innovative and systems improvement-focused approaches can and should gain traction. With partners under banners such as GPSDD committing to action and technical groups like TReNDS primed to respond alongside their own cross-sector partners, data can become more agile, better resourced, and more effective for both monitoring and achieving the SDGs.