10 April 2014

Data Revolution Can Drive Global Effort to Identify Most Vulnerable, Deputy Secretary-General Tells World Bank Event

10 April 2014
Deputy Secretary-General
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Data Revolution Can Drive Global Effort to Identify Most Vulnerable,

Deputy Secretary-General Tells World Bank Event


Following are UN Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson’s remarks, as prepared for delivery, at the World Bank event on “Talking about the Data Revolution”, in Washington, D.C., today:

Thank you very much for this chance to join you in talking about the data revolution.

To frame our discussions, let us remember that our search for data should be understood as a search for greater inclusion and social justice.  We need better information to find out who is most vulnerable, how to reach them and decide who is accountable.  We need to monitor our efforts to help people so that we can improve — and do better at helping more people.

Over the past more than 13 years, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have driven a global effort to increase data on marginalized and vulnerable populations.  But the revolution is unfinished.  One third of all countries still have difficulty reporting on up to half of the MDG indicators.  That is why the High-level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda called for a data revolution.

I am a great believer in credible, reliable data because it drives sound policy and decisions based on evidence.  Data also contributes to accountability by allowing us to monitor results.  I value this so highly because I was raised to understand that faith in good governance, including the right to receive and impart information, is the fabric of cohesive, advancing societies.

I learned this as a boy in Sweden, which, in my youth, was one of the poorest countries in Europe.  My own home did not have indoor plumbing, and the preventable diseases that kill too many people in developing countries today ravaged our communities in Gothenburg back then.  I clearly remember my father saying that public trust fosters national progress.  We saw it happen in Sweden — and I am confident it can happen in all countries.  But, public trust must be earned through evidence based on data.

A data revolution may sound abstract, but it is the birth certificate that counts an infant; the poverty measure that calculates whether a person receives social benefits; the indication of which child needs a vaccine.  Statistics, data and adequate information systems are more than means to reach our goals — they are also a development imperative in their own right.

When we speak of a data revolution, we are calling for a sustained, transformative effort to improve how data is produced, used and disseminated.  This will generate high-quality, timely and sustainable data in support of the post-2015 development agenda.

There are four key steps on the path forward.

First, we have to invest in national statistical capacity.  Now only a fraction of ODA (official development assistance) goes to statistical development.  We have to increase this funding.

Second, we need to explore new data sources, including those that come from citizens themselves, to determine whether they can contribute to meeting the demand for data that is timely, detailed and disaggregated.

Third, we should harness the power of advanced technologies and computing, such as big data.  We should cover the collection stage, for example through mobile phones, to the dissemination stage, through advanced visualization tools like data on maps.  Within the United Nations system, the Secretary-General’s Global Pulse initiative has been leading explorations in this arena, and the UN Statistical Commission has established a working group on big data.

Fourth, the data revolution should include data liberation.  We must facilitate open access to data.  This will promote transparency and ensure accountability.  It will also unleash the analytical creativity of users.  Grass-roots communities should be able to participate in data collection, analysis and decision-making.  Open access to data will empower stakeholders to hold policymakers to account and demand results.  That way, more people can help correct the unconscious and sometimes conscious manipulation of data that we see all too often.

The United Nations system is ready to strongly support the data revolution.  The Secretary-General reports regularly on the progress towards achieving the MDGs based on data compiled by an expert group.  The World Bank is an active part of that group, which brings together the expertise of the entire UN system under the auspices of the UN Statistical Commission.

The post-2015 development agenda is likely to rely even more on sound measurement for success.  We will need to create a similar mechanism, with the UN Statistical Commission, where Member States are represented.  This will ensure that the data we use for monitoring are authoritative and comparable.

This reporting mechanism has to be supported by a number of strategic partnerships.  I commend the World Bank, the Multilateral Development Banks and the IMF (International Monetary Fund) for signing an important Memorandum of Understanding for Statistics with the UN last year.  Together, we pledged closer cooperation with respect to data exchange and supporting national statistical capacity-building efforts.

Going forward, we will face significant demands for data — and we will need to cultivate even broader partnerships for development data.  These should go beyond the very important national statistical systems and international partners to include academics, civil society organizations, foundations and the private sector.  I am confident that by joining forces, we can mobilize the necessary resources and political will for a successful data revolution.

I close with the words of a development expert I spoke to before coming here who told me that significant investments in data give “visibility to those people and communities that have traditionally been invisible in various policies and processes”.

A data revolution is not a revolution in the traditional sense of an overhaul of existing systems.  The High-level Panel said the data revolution “would draw on existing and new sources of data”.  Ultimately, a data revolution is about more than counting; it aims to make people feel that they count — their concerns, needs, triumphs and above all their voices.  It also aims at some of the political aspects of and around data.

You may say that a data revolution has nothing to do with a violent revolution.  But, I would suggest that a data revolution could help to prevent a violent one by driving sustainable development for a more stable future.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.