Exploring the role of research in the Data Revolution for development

Published on 24 April 2015

Alan Stanley

Digital Knowledge Manager

In the first in a series of interviews conducted at the Cartagena Data Festival, UNDP’s Director of Post-2015, Paul Ladd, discusses the role of the Data Revolution in the SDG process and how research can support this agenda.

Around 400 development professionals, government officials, technical innovators, statisticians, researchers and data scientists gathered this week in the Colombian city of Cartagena for the Cartagena Data Festival.

With less than a year to go before the start date for the new Sustainable Development Goals the Festival sought to engage participants in a conversation about the role of data, and particularly the new world of bigger, faster and more detailed data (the so-called Data Revolution), in the implementation of these goals.

IDS’s Alan Stanley and Vivienne Benson were in Cartagena to showcase innovative IDS projects which might have something to contribute to this agenda. One of these is the Hunger and Nutrition Commitment Index (HANCI) which uses an innovative methodology to rank governments on their political commitment to tackling hunger and undernutrition as a tool for greater transparency and public accountability.

As it uses data to measure commitment rather than outcomes we wondered if methodologies like HANCI might have something to offer in monitoring whether progress towards a particular goal is being made before it was possible to see actual measurable results on the ground. In the first of a series of interviews from the event we caught up with Paul Ladd, UNDP’s Director of Post 2015, to discuss the role of the Data Revolution in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) process and to explore with him how research can support this agenda.

What is the data revolution for development and why is it happening now?

The data revolution has been going on for many years in many parts of the world particularly in the private sector. But the data revolution for development is us as a community of practitioners researchers and policy makers trying to capture and strengthen old forms of traditional statistics as well as capture new forms of innovative data. By this we mean technology driven big data, but also more qualitative participatory data and perception studies, to actually measure and track whether we’re making progress on the aspirations that governments are setting themselves on sustainable development.

What is the role for this data revolution in the Sustainable Development Goals process?

The data revolution will continue irrespective of the political processes and other development processes we have. What the post 2015 discussion does is give us the vehicle to hook on to in terms of the importance of data so that we can promote the agenda of the importance of different types of data on the back of the post 2015 process. The reason it’s important is that for the MDGs we had a set of global goals covering different aspects of poverty but for many of these goals we simply don’t know whether each country has made progress.

The SDGs take that one massive leap further – they’re broader, more complex, more numerous, they cover more topics, they’re intended to be integrated and they’re intended to be universal. So the data challenge has risen exponentially. We need to massively and significantly invest in different sorts of data to be able to track progress.

First and foremost that means a cornerstone of administrative data – censuses, household surveys – coverage of basic facts about people. Where we don’t have those in sufficient frequency we’re going to need to rely on proxies that track progress between administrative survey data points – perhaps using Big Data or perception studies with smaller groups of people. Now that won’t give us a comprehensive picture, and we’ll have to accept some degree of reduced quality but at the same time without those additional proxies it’s going to be very difficult over the next decade to track whether we’re making progress or not.

How can research support this process?

There are 169 targets in the proposal that’s come from the Open Working Group and we don’t know yet what the indicators will look like to track progress on those targets. Some of them are already covered by existing statistical instruments so we know where to go to get the data. Some of them we will have to innovate but we have a good idea where the data will come from – we just have to accept a greater degree of latitude in terms of the credibility on the sources of data.

Then there’s a section for which quite honestly we don’t know how to measure progress at all. So we’re going to need conceptual innovation from researchers to lead us to indicators and data sources that make the most sense and in the same way that the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) strengthened the agenda on measurement that’s what we’re going to have to do for the SGDs as well. The critical role of research agencies is to help us push that conceptual boundary on measurement.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.

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