Interconnected data hubs and public participation: the data revolution is underway

On our path to achieve the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, with 169 targets and 232 global indicators to track the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the global data community is facing one of the greatest challenges of all times. And to meet it, a “revolution” of the current statistical system is underway. Rather than belonging to statisticians alone, including policy makers, civil society, academia and private sector.

At the Friday seminar on 2 March, convened by UN DESA’s Statistics Division in the lead up to this year’s Statistical Commission, experts in the fields of policy, technology, data and statistics discussed ways to better integrate national data platforms together and build a new global data ecosystem to improve decision-making at all levels and achieve the SDGs.

“What we really want to think about is a new data architecture. Geographically we need data from all different levels: regional, national, continental and global; at different levels we need different types of data, that come from official government, business sectors, academia, and all our other partners,” said Stefan Schweinfest, Director of the Statistics Division, in his opening remarks.

National reporting is the foundation of the global statistical system. However, data generated by different national statistical institutions are often “far away from convenient,” as Haishan Fu, Director of World Bank Development Data Group, pointed out. Many databases require different tools to be queried, making data difficult to be accessed, and data from different sources is often provided in different formats and are not machine readable. This lack of data interoperability limits our capacity in making full use of the vast sources of information that are already available and make better decisions.

“The first step to make data convenient is to make data open, so data can be used more easily. It doesn’t have to be complex; just by accepting some open data principles,” said Ms. Fu.

The principles of openness and interoperability are at the core of the new data architecture, the “federated system of SDG data hubs and collaboration platforms,” which was also discussed at this seminar.

Julio Santaella, President of the National Institute of Statistics and Geography of Mexico, explained the vision of the federated system, which would consist of a network of country and agency data hubs. In this vision, each country leads and manages its own data hub to collect, share and disseminate data from across the national statistical system, following agreed international standards. Data hubs of international agencies, on the other hand, aggregate data from national data hubs and allow users to access harmonized data following international quality principles.

The UN has already taken the first step in this direction, and the Statistics Division introduced the latest progress in the implementation of its UN SDG Data Hub. A number of countries have also launched their own SDG data hubs, while many others are expected to join soon the initiative of a Federated Information System for the SDGs.

Technology is key enabling factor in this process, but more important is the human power. For instance, web-based technology makes it possible to build a federated system of interconnected data hubs. However, according to Rakesh Rajani, Director of Ford Foundation Civic Engagement and Government team, it is the collective effort, that really “unlocks human power to focus on one Global Compact.”

Not only government officials and data experts, but every citizen is part of that new global data ecosystem. Clint Brown, Director of Products of Esri, noted that with the rapid development of the geographic information system (GIS) nowadays, everyone’s data, from smart phone apps, Google maps, cloud computing, etc., can be integrated to a community GIS for sustainable development.

“Nobody can work alone. Data must be brought together,” Mr. Brown said.

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