How data improves our lives? Let us count the ways

When asked about data, our first thought will usually jump to the Internet, mobile phones, computers and to the endless possibilities these technologies bring about. But we rarely spare a thought for other kinds of data, which accompany us throughout our lives and which we often take for granted. So much so that they have almost become invisible. From life-saving healthcare, to education, poverty and gender equality, data underpins every aspect of a modern human existence.

Over seven decades and 50 sessions, the UN Statistical Commission has been guiding the world’s data and statistical production. As the Commission holds its 50th session this month, we explore how data can improve, and sometimes even save the lives of people.

In public health, accurate data can literally mean the difference between life and death. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 303,000 mothers die during childbirth every year and 2.7 million babies die during their first 28 days of life. We know how to prevent the majority of these maternal deaths and up to 75 per cent of newborn deaths. But we can only prevent them, if we know where, when and to whom they are happening. In short, better data has the power to save millions of lives.

When it comes to education, better data helps us understand that improving school enrolment is just half the battle. The other challenge is to ensure that every child attending a classroom actually develops the skills they need to thrive.

A 2017 study by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics found that 617 million children and adolescents – six out of every 10 – are not reaching minimum proficiency levels in reading and mathematics. What is even more worrying, roughly two thirds of the 617 million children who are not learning enough, are attending school.

The global learning crisis has been revealed thanks to better data and it is with better data that we should start fixing it. Today, 80 per cent of countries assess the quality of learning, but the results they produce cannot be compared. Better tools are needed to monitor and improve learning worldwide and ensure that no one is left behind.

Achieving better education and health are just two of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that the world has set itself for the year 2030. Measuring humanity’s progress towards achieving these 17 Goals and 169 targets of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is a titanic task that includes compiling and analyzing data on 232 indicators for every country in the world. Such a feat can only be achieved with a substantial increase in funding and capacity-building for national statistical systems.

However, investing in statistical capacity is rarely high on the priority list, especially in least developed countries or countries in situation of conflict. Consequently, people in those countries face a higher risk of falling behind, as they often remain invisible to official statistics and policy analyses.

Tracking SDGs progress also requires innovation, such as the use of geospatial and big data analysis tools and tapping new data sources like satellite imagery and mobile data. These new sources, coupled with strengthened partnerships for better data, can complement the traditional data sources – such as that gathered in population censuses, household surveys and administrative registers – and ensure that quality data and statistics are at the center of development policies.

While certainly a tremendous challenge, the gigantic surge in demand for data started by the SDGs, has also helped us realize the gaps in our understanding of the world. The 2030 Agenda motivates countries around the world to begin or to improve monitoring everything from air and water quality to the prevalence of discrimination, to electricity access.

To deliver on the 2030 Agenda’s central promise of leaving no one behind, we must first ensure everyone is counted and accounted for. That is why more and better data is fundamental for making our world a better place by 2030.

Leading up to the opening of the 50th Session of the UN Statistical Commission, UN DESA will organize a Seminar on the Future of Economic Statistics. It will be a unique opportunity to interact, exchange and learn from leading economists, statisticians and academics, including the Nobel laureate, Professor Joseph Stiglitz. Follow it live on

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50th Session of the UN Statistical Commission