The UN World Data Forum 2018 – Key Discussions

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Photo by IISD/ENB | Kiara Worth

Photo:Photo by: Kiara Worth / IISD/ENB

The Second UN World Data Forum was held this week in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. It marked a milestone in the journey to “making sustainable development data for all a reality”. The Forum brought together data leaders from government, multilateral institutions, business and civil society to discuss and launch key developments and innovations in sustainable development data.

Amina Mohammed, UN Deputy Secretary General, opened the Forum by outlining the task at hand: “to ensure better data is harnessed for the Global Goals, to ensure we leave no one behind”.

Jo Crawford attended the Forum for the IDM team. Read her tweets @JoCrawford_Melb for an ‘in the moment’ overview of sessions attended (outside the main plenary sessions, there were 10 sessions running in parallel).

Here we reflect on some of the key themes addressed during the Forum: collaboration, building trust, data inclusivity, disaggregation and the persistent gender data gap.

Collaboration for impact

The Forum showcased a multitude of evolving approaches to generating, collecting, analysing and combining data sources – from Google’s earth engine using satellite images over time to reveal changing landscapes and global fishing fleet activities, to citizen generated data.

This data can be a powerful tool to track changes relevant to the SDGs.

Stefan Verhulst of GovLab demonstrated the power of mobile data to reveal the movement of people in a physical space. Overlaying this data on a map of Chile provided a clear picture of regions where women have greater or lesser freedom to move throughout their day.

Rachel Sibande from DIAL Community noted that when aggregated and combined with routine data sources, mobile network data can identify relationships and patterns, leading to enhanced decision making, resource allocation and improved service delivery. There were also cautions for care in using mobile data: not everyone has a mobile phone, and those who don’t are likely to be precisely the people we need to reach to leave no one behind.

Data sources are expanding rapidly, and data types (big data, geo-spatial data, survey data, qualitative data, citizen-generated data) can be combined to offer powerful new insights. At the same time, speakers highlighted the practical challenges involved in strengthening collaboration between different players in the data ecosystem, and the importance of this for making the most of available resources. Presenters spoke of the potential for improvement in both inter-agency and intra-agency collaboration as areas where there was room for improvement, with both human and technical factors in the frame.

The United Nations Statistics Division (UN Stats) and the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data (Data4SDGs) launched their new guide Interoperability: a practitioner’s guide to joining up data in the development sector. The guide seeks to explore opportunities and identify good practices for enhancing data interoperability in the area of sustainable development.

Data advocates, producers and users alike underscored the importance of interoperability to help generate ‘better quality and more holistic information that can facilitate achievement and monitoring of progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs); and to help ‘foster more coordinated, coherent and data-driven cooperation and collaboration between official statistical entities and the broader data ecosystem.’

“The power and value of data interoperability is that it brings not just data sets together, but people to work together” – Francesca Perucci, Chief of the Statistical Services Branch at UN Stats.

As Jo Crawford noted “collaboration expands what any of us can achieve alone, and is an imperative for maximising the value of funding and intellectual efforts”.

Building trust in data

On day two of the Forum, a live poll was undertaken in the plenary on increasing trust in data and statistics, to gauge perceived trust in data. While the audience could only choose from among a pre-setermined set of options, feedback was clear: 70% of audience members believed there was a crisis in the global public’s lack of trust in data.

The audience then voted (again among pre-determined options) on the most important actions to take to build and maintain trust in data and statistics:

  1. Increase data literacy of citizens – 39%
  2. Hold media accountable to (sic) misuse of statistics – 19%
  3. Apply data standards and principles – 17%
  4. Strengthen partnerships – 16%
  5. Other – 8%

Demystifying data collection and processing, and making data open and transparent were also identified as strategies to build trust.

Emily Courey Pryor of Data 2X and Mona Chalabi, Data Journalist from The Guardian also spoke to the importance of storytelling to help people understand what data is and how it is being used. Leesha Delatie-Budair, Deputy Director General of the Statistical Institute of Jamaica, underlined that communicating with policy makers in ‘English not statistics’ is essential for data to be used – and funded – with infographics rather than reports with tables now the preferred format.

Inclusive data to leave no one behind.

“We can’t leave no one behind if we don’t know who they are” – Zachary Mwangi, Kenya Bureau of Statistics.

A key conversation at the Forum was around the data needed to ensure no one is left behind. Many of the data sources identified to track the SDGs involve data collected at the household level. This hides the situation of individuals inside households, as well as those who are not in households at all, such as refugee populations, people in institutions, street children – groups we need to reach to leave no one behind.  Measurement approaches that systematically make some individuals invisible are a barrier to achieving the commitment to leave no one behind.

Across the three days of the Forum, there were repeated calls for investing in inclusive, comprehensive data that can be disaggregated to provide granular insights into who is experiencing issues, where, to what extent, to inform more effective policy and programming. No one is an average. And people need to see themselves in data in order to trust it.  But as this work proceeds, a ‘do no harm approach’ is vital. Data privacy and anonymisation are essential prerequisites for inclusion and openness that also ensures safety.

Both official statistics institutions and civil society organisations are changing how data is collected to make it more inclusive and accurate, and to enable disaggregation by gender, age, location or other characteristics.

Francesca Grum highlighted the work of the Evidence and Data for Gender Equality (EDGE) project, a joint initiative of UNSD and UN Women to improve the integration of gender issues into official statistics for better, evidence-based policies. It has shown that measuring asset ownership and control at the individual level is more revealing than household-level data and provides better information for stakeholders. This led to new guidelines for measuring assets, approved by the UN Statistical Commission.

As Francesca Grum, Chief of the Social and Gender Statistics Section at UN Stats, expressed it,  “while it may be cheaper to ask a household head, it is not accurate – individuals need to speak for themselves”.

Jo Crawford,  noted that this reflected  what seemed to be an increased emphasis on individual level measurement and sampling strategies that can reveal within household differences. Individuals inside households are not the same. Measuring assets at the individual level is key to better understanding of within household disparities”.

The Individual Deprivation Measure (IDM) is one measure that can support this focus on understanding dynamics within households. By collecting data at the individual level, from multiple adults in a household, it can reveal inequality within households, and generate data sets that can be disaggregated by age, sex, geographic location and disability.

The IDM supports this move towards data that enables much more granular insights, to inform more targeted programs and policies and assessment of their impact

The need to move beyond gender as a binary concept so data is more inclusive of sexual and gender minorities was identified, with Jay Neuner, Communications Manager from SDSN Trends, calling for more consideration for the role data can play in supporting gender rights and recognition.

In rapidly urbanising spaces, speakers also addressed the need to move beyond an urban/rural distinction to understand the situation of people living in slums compared to other areas of the city. And as urbanisation races ahead and households change, census data that is 10 or more years old cannot provide an accurate basis for sampling.

The work of researchers such as Dana Thomson of is developing new ways to select representative samples for household surveys.  Gridded population datasets such as those developed by are models of the population in squares as small as a city block, ~100m x100m. They provide a more accurate basis for selecting a representative sample of households when populations are rapidly growing and moving and census data are outdated or inaccurate.

The World Bank’s Haishan Fu noted that data is the “Soft infrastructure of development” – it is needed to support programming, policy and advocacy. In the closing plenary, Mahmoud Mohieldin, the World Bank’s Senior Vice President for Agenda 2030, confirmed that the Bank is investing more energy, resources, and collaborative innovation in support of development data and statistical systems. More investment, better use of existing investment through improved coordination, collaboration and interoperability, and support for the capacity of both data producers and users were highlighted as inter-related priorities by contributors from different ‘data communities’.

The gender-data gap persists

In opening the Forum, UN Deputy Secretary General Amina Mohammed noted the importance of gender data. Emily Courey Pryor, Executive Director of Data2X noted that “gender gaps are pernicious and persistent, and closing them will require partnerships across organisations and sectors”.

To give one example of this gap, more than two-thirds of countries still lack data on incidents of violence against women. Experts in measuring violence including from UN Women, UN Stats, the kNOwVAWData initiative, INEGI provided an overview of work including investment in the capacity to collect quality data on violence against women, safely.

While being able to disaggregate data by gender (and gender beyond a binary conception) is a vital for improving gender data, what is measured matters also. Increasing the availability of data on dimensions of life that are particularly gender-sensitive such as time use, voice in the community, mobility and violence is a priority if data is to provide a more holistic understanding of the drivers of gender inequality.

The IDM is part of this effort to close the gender data gap. It collects data about 15 key dimensions of life at the individual level to enable disaggregation, and includes dimensions that are particularly important for gender-sensitivity such as voice, time use, access to family planning and violence. We need to collect gender sensitive data to understand how efforts towards the SDGs are translating into better lives for women.

It is heartening to see movement around the areas of individual level, gender sensitive measurement at this year’s UN Data Forum, and it is also heartening to be discussing greater collaboration as we head towards 2020.

The IDM can present solutions to some of the issues raised at the Forum, it is an individual, gender sensitive measure and collects primary data. We believe the IDM can collaborate powerfully to tracking progress against, and ultimately achieving the 2030 agenda.

The IDM is a partnership between the Australian National University (ANU) and the International Women’s Development Agency (IWDA), with strategic support from the Australian Government through the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT).