Reflections on the World Data Forum

by Bernard Sabiti


The inaugural UN World Data Forum, which took place in Cape Town in January 2017, marked a turning point in the data revolution. For the first time, representatives from official statistics and from non-official data communities came together to discuss the data revolution. The scale of the challenge we face in addressing the data needs of Agenda 2030 means that a holistic approach is exactly what’s needed.

The key consensus emerging from the conference – which was attended by 1,400 data experts – is that in order to leave no one behind, investment in civil registration and vital statistics is absolutely imperative. Improving registry and administrative data is an essential building block in creating sustainable data infrastructures. That over 100 countries do not keep accurate birth and death records, and that many don’t record causes of deaths, starkly highlights both the scale of the issue and also the huge potential of investment to close data gaps and – more importantly – ensure that we leave no one behind.

Many delegates spoke of the need for improving administrative data to ensure that there is quality, local data that can be used for local decision-making. Yusuf Murangwa, the Director General of the Department of Statistics in Rwanda, made the point succinctly in our ‘Counting people to make people count’ session: “If we do it right, civil registration has the potential to make sure that we don’t leave anyone behind. If we make sure we register every kid that is born … we can create a foundation of making sure that at least we know everyone and where they live.”

Improving civil registration and vital statistics is a crucial piece of the data revolution puzzle. Household surveys could be another piece of that puzzle, but is it one that can be relied on? At the World Data Forum there was an overall recognition of the importance of household surveys and the need to carry them out at least every three years. However, while surveys provide vital national-level information and statistics, they are not suitable for providing the local-level micro-information required for local-level decision-making. For example, most statistics produced in Uganda – including those derived from household surveys – cannot be usefully disaggregated below the subnational level, and so cannot be relied on by decentralised government departments for effectively planning service delivery. And Uganda is a country with a good system for household surveys.

The limitations of household surveys not only build the case for investment in registry and administrative data, but they also add weight to arguments about the importance of finding new approaches both to meeting the data challenges of Agenda 2030 and to ensuring sustainable systems that function for countries’ national and subnational needs. Our ‘Pilots for perpetual censuses: community-based data collection’ panel gave innovators the opportunity to share their experiences of finding ways to better collect data for use by local decision-makers. The debates and examples discussed in this session are usefully summarised in our paper, ‘Long-term investments in a short-term world’. The overarching message is that we cannot rely on surveys alone to give us the detailed information we need about people in poverty, and the only solution is that investment must be made in areas such as community-based data collection and civil registration and vital statistics.

The forum culminated in the launch of the Cape Town Global Action Plan for Sustainable Development Data, which will be adopted by countries at the UN Statistical Commission in March 2017. The plan includes a number of objectives and actions categorised under six strategic areas:

  1. Coordination and strategic leadership on data for sustainable development
  2. Innovation and modernisation of national statistical systems
  3. Strengthening of basic statistical activities and programmes with particular focus on addressing the monitoring needs of the 2030 Agenda
  4. Dissemination and use of sustainable development data
  5. Multi-stakeholder partnerships for sustainable development data
  6. Mobilise resources and coordinate efforts for statistical capacity building.

An official, international commitment to improving data for sustainable development is a significant step in the right direction – the direction of building sustainable development infrastructures. What remains to be seen is how well this translates into action, and particularly action in priority areas. Will those funding improvements in data look beyond Millennium Development Goal-era methods for assessing poverty and invest in civil registration and vital statistics or in community-based data collection? Or will they stick to the traditional household surveys? Only time will tell, but what the UN World Data Forum has shown us is that the official and non-official data communities around the world are joining forces and refuse to get complacent about delivering a genuine revolution in data for development.

Image credit: Photo UNICEF DRC/Benoit Almeras