Paper 4 The Data Revolution for Sustainable Development

Paper 4

The Data Revolution for Sustainable Development

Jessica Espey, Eve de la Mothe Karoubi, and Guido Schmidt-Traub

In July 2014, the Open Working Group (OWG) on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) released its set of 17 recommended goals and 169 targets, of which 40 focus on means of implementation.

Governments will adopt the SDGs in September 2015, and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) will expire at the end of that year. So the world must be ready to start implementing the SDGs on 1 January 2016. By December 2015 the UN Inter-agency and Expert Group on SDGs (IAEG-SDGs) will have reported on its recommendations for SDG indicators. This will be agreed in March 2016. Meanwhile accompanying metrics must be defined, adequate monitoring protocols and data collection modalities agreed, and sufficient resources mobilized to implement the goals. Of course, data systems will require continuous strengthening over coming decades, and many of the improvements required will be implemented over several years, yet, governments and other stakeholders must be ready to act in 2016.

Getting ready to monitor the SDGs will require a data revolution,as called for by the High-Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda and many others. The term data revolution has different meanings to different people  some emphasize citizen accountability, others new forms of social and geophysical data, new ways of sharing data, and many other facets. Yet, any data revolution for sustainable development would be meaningless if it did not also address the essential nuts and bolts of monitoring the SDGs in every country. As recognized in the OWG document (paragraph 17), there is a critical need to strengthen data collection capacity, as well as data quality.

In September 2014, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon launched the Independent Experts Advisory Group on the Data Revolution (IEAG) to advise on how the data revolution can be implemented. Their report  the World That Counts  was released on November 6, 2014. The report emphasizes three main points:

  • Data are essential for decision-­‐making and accountability. In the context of the SDGs, data should serve as a management tool to help countries develop implementation and monitoring strategies for achieving the SDGs and to monitor progress. Second, the SDG indicators should serve as a report card to measure progress towards achieving a target and ensure the accountability of governments and other stakeholders for achieving the SDGs.
  • Data needs improving. Despite considerable progress in recent years, whole groups of people are not being counted and important aspects of people’s lives and environmental conditions are still not measured. For people, this can lead to the denial of basic rights, and for the planet, to continued environmental degradation. Too often, existing data remain unused because they are released too late or not at all, not well-documented and harmonized, or not available at the level of detail needed for decision-making.
  • New technologies are leading to an exponential increase in the volume and types of data available, creating unprecedented possibilities for informing and transforming society and protecting the environment, but many are excluded from this transformation, because of lack of resources, knowledge, capacity or opportunity. There are huge and growing inequalities in access to data and information and in the ability to use

The report proceeds to set out 5 key recommendations:

  1. That the UN establish a process whereby key stakeholders create a Global Consensus on Data, to adopt principles concerning legal, technical, privacy, geospatial and statistical standards which, among other things, will facilitate openness and information exchange and promote and protect human rights;
  2. To create mechanisms through which technology and innovation can be shared and used for the common good. The report proposes to create a global Network of Data Innovation Networks, to bring together the organizations and experts in the field. This would: contribute to the adoption of best practices for improving the monitoring of SDGs, identify areas where common data-­‐related infrastructures could address capacity problems and improve efficiency, encourage collaborations, identify critical research gaps and create incentives to innovate;
  3. A call for new investments and strengthening of In particular a new funding stream to support the data revolution for sustainable development should be endorsed at the Third International Conference on Financing for Development, in Addis Ababa in July 2015. An assessment will be needed for the scale of investments, capacity development and technology transfer that is required, especially for low income countries;
  4. A UN-led Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data”, to mobilize and coordinate the actions and institutions required to make the data revolution serve sustainable development;
  5. The establishment of a SDGs data lab to support the development of a first wave of SDG indicators, as well as an analysis and visualization

The report raises a set of important considerations and shines a spotlight on the need to improve the quality and capacity of the current statistical system. Increased investments are essential and the Financing for Development (FfD) Summit presents a crucial opportunity. To prepare for the implementation of the SDG agenda however, it is important to articulate a clear roadmap for monitoring the SDGs and improving the quality of our data. This should include four key steps:

  1. Agreement on a limited set of global SDG indicators

Since a very large number of indicators would be required to comprehensively track progress towards all 169 targets proposed by the working group, we recommend that countries consider two sets of indicators. Global Monitoring Indicators would be reported on by every country on an annual basis, whilst Complementary National Indicators would track issues that may be applicable to some countries only, such as indicators for neglected tropical diseases (NTDs), or that may give countries greater scope in applying complex concepts, such as inequality, to their specific needs. The Complementary National Indicators represent a menu of options for countries to choose from, though the list we include is far from exhaustive.

We underscore the importance of limiting the overall number of Global Monitoring Indicators to no more than 100. Comments received during the public consultation on SDSN’s Indicator Report confirm that 100 Global Monitoring Indicators is the upper limit of what National Statistical Offices (NSOs) can report on under the SDGs (SDSN, 2015). Of course, governments collect vastly more variables than this, some of which respond to specific local challenges or priorities. Moreover, a global SDG indicator framework cannot and must not replace the much more detailed reporting in key areas (e.g. biodiversity under the Aichi targets, malaria control programs, education indicators under Education for All).

  1. Filling indicator gaps

Many indicators, especially relating to poverty and economic development, are already collected (many as part of the MDG process), but important gaps remain. In developing SDSN’s report Indicators and a Monitoring Framework for the SDGs we identified 10 indicator gaps, where a common indicator, proxy or standard does not already exist, for example: an indicator to measure the percentage of population in extreme multidimensional poverty; crop nitrogen use efficiency; functioning programs of multisectoral mental health promotion and prevention; a measure of ICT infrastructure and performance.

For each gap, the competent specialized agencies of the UN System and other international statistical organizations, such as the OECD or Eurostat, should launch a technical process for identifying and reviewing available indicator options. By mid to late 2015 these organizations working with national statistical offices and other stakeholders (e.g. academia, business, and civil society) should propose new indicators for inclusion in the SDG monitoring framework.

In many cases, sound indicators exist, but data is not systematically collected on a routine, harmonized, and comparable basis particularly in low-income countries. As highlighted in two SDSN Briefing Papers on the household survey and indicator coverage, important gaps exist, particularly for key social and environmental metrics (1). National statistical offices and the international organizations should study these data coverage gaps carefully over the next year and identify practical strategies for filling them. In some cases, this will require increased investments in national statistical systems.

  1. Improving the frequency of SDG data

Timelines are crucial for data to be a useful management and policy tool. To align with national planning and budgetary processes, SDG monitoring needs to operate on an annual cycle. Ensuring annual and up-to-date data will be a major step towards achieving a data revolution for development.

Annual monitoring of progress does not necessarily mean that new data need to be produced every year. For a number of indicators, this may be impossible or inadvisable (2). In such cases producing data every two to three years and doing robust projections, extrapolations or modeled estimates may be sufficient. But even this level of frequency will require a step change in the way data is collected and disseminated.

Given how infrequently some indicators are collected today, it might seem impossible to shift towards such high-frequency monitoring for SDG indicators. Yet a careful review of the issues suggests it is utterly feasible. In fact, many countries have shown what can be done with clear commitments, the creative use of modern technologies, institutional innovation, and modest resources. Some 60 countries already report annual figures on multiple social and economic indicators based on annual survey data.

International institutions also have made the effort to generate annual estimates. Such approaches could be applied to other SDG indicators to enable timely annual monitoring of progress (3). In this context, we applaud the World Bank’s recent commitment to report annually on poverty and boosting shared prosperity (4).

  1. Establish a new Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data

In its report A World That Counts, the Independent Expert Advisory Group on the Data Revolution recommends a UN-led Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data. The role of the partnership would be to mobilize and coordinate as many initiatives and institutions as possible to achieve a data revolution for development. In practice, this partnership may consist of a high-level multi-stakeholder committee, with representatives from the UN, national governments, businesses, academia, science and civil society. The committee would perform three essential functions:

(i) Convening diverse data communities (such as Members of the Open Government Partnership and the G8 Open Data Charter) to foster consensus and harmonize global standards;

(ii) Incentivizing innovation and encouraging public-private partnerships for data; and

(iii) Mobilizing additional resources.

A set of global standards for data harmonization and use will be essential for national governments and NSOs to effectively compile, interpret, and utilize the broad range of development data sets. Standardization will be particularly important for non-official sources of data, such as business monitoring, which over time may be used to complement official metrics. In the short- to medium-term, standardizing efforts may require more methodological research to better understand how unofficial or big data can be used to complement official sources. A high-level, powerful group will be essential to convene the various data and transparency initiatives under one umbrella, in support of sustainable development, and to secure the cooperation of both Member States and businesses.

Second, any new Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data should strive to foster innovation in SDG monitoring. The IEAG on the Data Revolution has recommended a web of data innovation networks to advance innovation and analysis. To focus energies and incentivize year on year progress, an annual prize should also be considered, awarded at a World Forum on Sustainable Development Data (UN Secretary-General, 2015). This award would be given to NSOs, specialist groups, civil society organizations, or businesses that have developed innovative approaches to improve SDG indicators (e.g. by increasing the frequency or disaggregation) or replace existing indicators with new metrics that are better and/or less expensive to collect.

A third core function of the Global Partnership will be to mobilize additional resources to support sound monitoring system. SDSN has been working in coalition with more than 15 organizations, including Open Data Watch, PARIS21, the World Bank, and others, to consolidate available data on the levels of investment required for SDG monitoring and statistical capacity development. Our new report, Data for Development: A Needs Assessment for SDG Monitoring and Statistical Capacity estimates that the 77 Official Development Assistance (ODA) eligible countries will need to spend approximately $1 billion a year to upgrade their statistical systems and carry out regular data collection for the SDGs. Although it is hard to estimate an exact funding gap, it is clear that there is a large margin between current expenditures and future requirements. An analysis of National Strategies for the Development of Statistics (NSDSs) shows that countries are planning on aid at a level of 49% of current NSDS budgets. Donors will therefore need to maintain current contributions to statistics, of approximately US$300 million per annum, and go further, leveraging US$100-200 million more in ODA to support country efforts (Espey, 2015).

Current financing mechanisms and modalities for data are not only underfunded, they are also fragmented and beset with high transaction costs. In addition to quantifying incremental financing needs, the international community will, therefore, need to determine how additional resources can be used most effectively for maximum results. Experience in other areas suggests that pooled financing mechanisms can be very effective by:

(i) Reducing transaction costs and minimizing duplication;

(ii) Strengthening national ownership in the design and implementation of programs;

(iii) Facilitating knowledge transfer and the consolidation of lessons learnt across countries;

(iv) Facilitating partnerships with the private sector through dedicated windows for public-private partnerships; and

(v) Supporting transparent criteria for countries’ resource mobilization (Sachs and Schmidt-Traub, 2015).

Based on a clear indicator framework and a robust needs assessment, the first steps towards a data revolution can start in 2015, including vital resource mobilization. Given the public attention that will be paid to the SDGs during 2015, it would seem possible to complete the fundraising by the end of the year in time for implementation in 2016.


Espey, J. et al.(2015) Data for Development: A Needs Assessment for SDG Monitoring and Statistical Capacity Development, SDSN, Open Data Watch, PARIS21, The World Bank et al. SDSN Report, Paris, France and New York, USA: SDSN.

Sachs, J. and G Schmidt-Traub (2013). Financing for development and climate change post-2015. SDSN Briefing Paper, Paris, France and New York, USA: SDSN.

Sustainable Development Solutions Network (2015) Indicators and a Monitoring Framework for the Sustainable Development Goals, SDSN Report, Paris, France and New York, USA: SDSN.

UN Secretary General (2014), para. 143.


(1) See i) Cassidy, M. (2014). “Assessing Gaps in Indicator Availability and Coverage. Briefing paper. Paris, France and New York, USA: SDSN; ii) Alkire, S. and Samman, E. (2014), Mobilizing the household data required to progress toward the SDGs. SDSN Briefing Paper; and iii) Alkire, S (2014). Towards frequent and accurate poverty data. SDSN Briefing Paper, Paris, France and New York, USA: SDSN

(2) Indicators unsuited to annual production are indicators that (i) exhibit year-on-year variation that is significantly smaller than the error margin, (ii) require a very large number of observations to be computed, (iii) may be affected or compromised by year on year monitoring, such as attitudinal and behavior change. A preliminary assessment suggests that this applies to at least four GMIs featured in this report: life expectancy, maternal mortality rate, fertility rate, and prevalence of non-communicable diseases.

(3) See the CME Info online database:

(4) See World Bank President Jim Yong Kim’s Speech at Georgetown University (April 2013), online at:

Jessica Espey is the Associate Director of the SDSN and head of its New York office. Jessica also leads SDSN’s post-2015 monitoring and accountability initiative, which also explores investments and innovations that could help to strengthen national and global monitoring systems.


Prior to joining SDSN, Jessica served as a special adviser on the post-2015 agenda within the Office of the President of Liberia, supporting the work of The High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons (of which President Sirleaf was co-chair) and the development of the Common African Position on the Post-2015 Agenda. For three years prior she was a senior researcher for Save the Children UK, who initially supported her work in Liberia on secondment. She has also worked as a researcher at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) and the British Institute in Eastern Africa (BIEA). She has particular expertise in the study of inequality, age and gender discrimination.

Espey holds a Bachelor of Arts with Honors in Modern History from the University of Oxford and a Masters of Sciences in the Political Economy of Development from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. Over the past eight years, she has lived and worked in the UK, US, Liberia, Kenya, and Rwanda.


Guido Schmidt-Traub is Executive Director of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network. He has served as climate change advisor to the Africa Progress Panel secretariat and was CEO of Paris-based CDC Climat Asset Management, an investment company regulated by the French financial markets regulator. From 2008-2010 Guido was Director and Partner at South Pole Carbon Asset Management in Zurich, a leading developer of greenhouse gas emission projects. Prior to managing the MDG Support Team at UNDP (2006-2008) he served as Policy Advisor and then as Associate Director of the UN Millennium Project in New York, which was tasked with developing a concrete action plan for the world to achieve the Millennium Development Goals. Earlier Guido was Partner at IndexIT Scandinavia, a private equity fund for early-stage technology companies, and consultant at McKinsey & Company in Germany. Guido holds an M.Phil. in Economics from Oxford University (Rhodes Scholar) and a Masters in physical chemistry from the Free University Berlin. He resides in Paris with his family.



Eve de la Mothe Karoubi is a Manager for the SDSN. Eve joined the SDSN in November 2012 and leads the work on indicators and monitoring for the Sustainable Development Goals, as well as the development and management of regional and national networks in sub-Saharan Africa.

Previously she worked for the OECD on various projects: capacity building in developing and emerging economies, strengthening governance in post-conflict and fragile states, and food security and sustainable development in the Sahel and West Africa. In 2007/08, Eve was an Insight Fellow, a fellowship program to pursue effective conflict management internationally, during which she worked in Liberia, Thailand, Lebanon, and at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Eve has also held positions with Mercy Corps’ Conflict Management Group in New York and the UN International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Tanzania.

She holds a dual Masters Degree in International Affairs from the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) and from Sciences Po Paris, and a B.A. with honors from Smith College.




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