• Blog
  • 23 October 2018

How can data really be transformative?

DI Executive Director Harpinder Collacott explores how policymakers could be more engaged with the data community and the role of the UN World Data Forum

Written by Harpinder Collacott

Chief Executive Officer

The second UN World Data Forum (WDF), which takes place between 22 and 24 October in Dubai, is one of the outcomes of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It has put the data and statistical community in the driving seat, conferring on them the responsibility to improve data quality and innovate at speed to support the implementation of the Global Goals. But for data to be transformative, the data community needs to be working with the political community so that they can put the information that is needed into the right hands at the right time and in the right way to deliver Agenda 2030 and the commitment to leave no one behind.

Getting policymakers to the table

As I participate in meetings at the second WDF, I am pleased and impressed by the dynamic and diverse people and organisations attending who are all pushing the potential of data and statistics forward. We are now at a critical point: all of this energy and all of these ideas and innovations will only have impact if we can also connect them to policy priorities.

Decision-makers from the national to the subnational level are often absent from data discussions, despite it being their countries’ priorities and needs that should be driving decisions about where investments are most needed to increase data. As well as being producers of data, they are also key users of the data, and their voice is crucial. If we are to realise the full potential of data to drive meaningful change, we need to link efforts to improve data production and use with policymaking priorities and frameworks to ensure the data is focused on the positive outcomes it can help bring about.

Engagement with policymakers is also important because political buy-in and cross-governmental links are an integral part of bringing pilots and proof-of-concepts to scale. Such pilots can often be at the forefront of innovation but their potential to produce transformative results will only be realised if there is the political buy-in to scale them up.

Making the most of the data we have, but not accepting the status quo

We are already nearly a quarter of the way through the SDG era and the pressure is on to show results. This means we must get policymakers using the data we have – however imperfect – while also continuing to improve data quality and systems as we go, otherwise we risk running out of time. There is ample data to tell us who to focus on, where and how to do things differently but decision-makers are not accessing or using this information consistently or effectively. So it is our responsibility as the data and statistical community to communicate better with data and inspire action that will result in changes on the ground.

Current data needs to do a much better job of supporting implementation as well as demonstrating results so that policymakers focus on the right areas to keep Agenda 2030 on track. At the same time, we must make sure no one becomes complacent about how little is really known about poverty and how it is being addressed – the data we have is not even close to good enough to track our aspirations to leave no one behind, and this is unacceptable. Policymakers should not feel satisfied with working on such poor information, especially when the means to improve it are so available. The data community must consistently make the case for this two-pronged approach, ensuring that policymakers make use of the data that is available to them but also recognise where this data can be improved.

So where should our focus be right now?

  1. Make data transparent and accessible for all – access to information is critical for implementing policy and targeting resources. It enables planners and service providers, civil society actors and donors to design and deliver effective programmes, and it enables the communities they serve to hold them to account for their decisions. As global poverty falls in aggregate, so improved targeting and a focus on the local become increasingly important. Data must be translated to the local policy context and made accessible to encourage action.
  2. Mobilise the power of administrative data – improving administrative data systems at country level is a difficult but essential job. Unless we count people – collect real-time data on the services that are reaching them, who is being born and where, who is dying and why – we will not be able to target the people most in need and ensure their lives are improving. Currently 55% of the poorest 20% of people in the world do not have their births registered. If you are invisible to your government, it cannot target you specifically to prevent you from being left behind. Civil registration and better administrative data systems are essential for policymakers working at the national and subnational level to plan, deliver, manage and monitor the services that are fundamental to people’s lives – health, education, water, sanitation, social protection. By improving administrative systems disaggregated data will increase too and so will its coverage and frequency.
  3. Improve data communication – we must put much more effort and investment into improving data communication to both ordinary people and politicians. Digital tools including social media platforms provide new opportunities for the public and politicians to communicate and exchange ideas, but we have not capitalised on them by enabling people to use data. There is untapped potential here to get people engaged with making the world better – whether that’s reporting water points that need servicing, holding politicians to account, or engaging in community/civic discussions or providing feedback. The data community needs to devote as much attention (maybe more) to how data is communicated, understood and used as we do to how it is gathered. The narrative that you build on the foundation of data is what can change the world for the better.

So let’s be open to doing things differently so we can make greater strides with data and transform the lives of people for the better.