Big Data and Traditional Data for the United Nations Development Agenda

Big Data and Traditional Data for the United Nations Development Agenda

By Sabrina Juran, United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) — January 2015.

The call from the report of the Independent Expert Advisory Group to the Secretary General on the Data Revolution has gained momentum, recognizing that the Data Revolution is not an end in itself, but a mechanism to improve the lives of people over the next decade and beyond in support of equality and rights. The likely success of the post-2015 development agenda will be enhanced through plans and strategies that are evidence-led and informed by better data, and in turn lead to better policy options.

But what does the data revolution entail? It entails many things:

  • building on the wealth of official statistics that already exist in national statistical systems;
  • collecting more and better data on old and new emerging aspects of well-being;
  • compiling data faster for real-time analysis and dissemination of data;
  • combining traditional data sources with new ones, such as big data, remote sensing, mobile phone data, etc.;
  • producing and using data in new ways to promote transparency and accountability;
  • using and integrating data in informed decision-making and policies that affects people’s lives; and
  • using data to monitor policy implementation.

The central focus of the Post-2015 paradigm will be on eradicating extreme poverty by 2030, with a stronger emphasis on inequality and inclusiveness. Goals and targets must take into account current and future populations, changing age structures, mobility patterns, city growth and changes in the spatial distribution of people. Indicators, in turn, must be disaggregated by sex, age, social, economic, and ethnic characteristics. However, more data do not necessarily translate into better polices. Good quality and timely data need to be analyzed to ensure evidence based decision making.
However, the international and national monitoring systems should be tempered by a realistic assessment of the capacity of statistical office to deliver information. The data revolution provides the opportunity to address statistical capacity building from the start.

In accordance with the principles agreed at the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) and the Millennium Declaration, international cooperation should recognize national ownership and leadership as prerequisites for development.

National strategies for statistical capacity cannot follow a one size fits all but must reflect national realities.
Technical or financial assistance for statistical capacity needs to be demand not donor driven.
A national statistical office can only work sustainably if it can respond to local needs and realities.

Within the new development framework, UNFPA advocates for 1) universal birth and death registration; 2) access to timely and complete data for population trends and projections; and 3) systematic use of population trends and projections in the formulation, monitoring and evaluation of development strategies.
These efforts might be addressed under a goal on governance or be mainstreamed throughout the framework.

As a response to that call from the report key gaps needs to be closed in access and use of data in order to enable data to play its full role in the realization of the Sustainable Development Agenda. As a foundation, support for data acquisition, analysis, dissemination and utilization from household surveys and the 2020 round of census need to be escalated. 
Data gaps need to be closed to ensure that entire groups of people and key issues become visible at the smallest unit of disaggregation possible.
It is of great importance to strengthen national vital statistics, census and survey data, if model-based estimates are to be avoided.

There is a concomitant need to strengthen the national statistics systems (NSSs) that will provide much of the data used for the Sustainable Development Goals indicators. Improving the timeliness and completeness of national vital registration data is already acknowledged as an urgent priority across the developing world. However, similar attention needs to be paid to improving the quality and coverage of census and survey data. Not only will census data provide the baseline numbers for many indicators, especially at levels of fine granularity (e.g. small areas, or when disaggregated by factors other than those collected as part of the vital registration system), these data also usually form the basis for drawing nationally representative sampling frames for a great many surveys and other data collection exercises (including handling selectivity in big data). Additionally, the need for detailed documentation and metadata on the construction of and basis for calculating the SDG indicators must not be neglected. Surveys, such as the Demographic and Health Surveys should be expanded by questions that are essential to have more detailed information on core population, including aspirations and behaviour of young people and adolescents.

The international community should further commit to building an integrated global-level georeferenced database, bringing together demographic, social, economic and environmental information on a common spatial frame, to ensure that globally available data are accessible and can be integrated spatially with nationally and locally owned data.
This would achieve far greater leverage for policy makers and planners without violating rules of ownership, retention and access. Census data, the only geo-referenced universally sampled dataset, should be at the core of this project.

Efforts to respond to the data revolution should be based on the principles of data quality and integrity, disaggregation, timeliness, transparency and openness, human rights capacity development and data utilization for the development of policies and interventions.
The data revolution is at the centre of the United Nations work for policy engagement and capacity development at the country level and efforts in this direction should be increased, in particular within the context of the need to monitor the SDGs and partnerships with the private sector and other non-state actors.

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