Taking joined-up data to the UN: engaging with the official statistics community
This blog was written by Tom Orrell, Senior Advocacy Advisor at Publish What You Fund
It’s official, data is power – and there is now clear recognition in the international community that we need to harness it through modernising statistical systems and embracing the data revolution we are already experiencing.
The UN Statistical Commission (UNSC) is ordinarily a purely technical commission of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), but this year it was transformed into a highly political forum as the international community debated and agreed on the proposed Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) indicator framework. This politicisation of a traditionally technical area of international cooperation is a clear indication that data – and how it is recorded, transmitted, published and used – is now part of mainstream political discourse. This is a real triumph for those advocating for a data revolution for sustainable development as it reflects the increasing significance of innovative approaches and new technologies in producing official statistics.
This is particularly important for the ambitions of joined-up data.
At the Open Government Partnership Global Summit in Mexico last year it was concluded that for interoperability to be built into data systems effectively, standards setters, data producers and data users first need to agree on how to do this and then sustain their engagement on the issue. Together with the transparency and open data communities, there is a clear need for the international statistics community to agree on this as well.
This year’s High-level Forum on Official Statistics took place just before the official UNSC session. Its themes reflected the new momentum towards a policy dialogue on the data needs for the 2030 agenda and the need for partnerships, innovative approaches and solutions from data experts and producers.
Early in the Forum, the UN Assistant Secretary-General for Economic Development, Lenni Montiel, made the point that in the coming years states will need to address the issue of how to develop standards to harness the potential of new sources of data. By necessity, this will require a conversation on how to improve interoperability between data standards. This is absolutely right, but also raises an important point: why wait to have that discussion when there is already a need to join up existing standards?
As our first two discussion papers demonstrate, there is a pressing need for conversations in the official statistics community on how to develop common solutions to the challenges posed by a lack of interoperability between existing standards and datasets. Our first discussion paper in particular, concludes that there are two ways of achieving interoperability: by designing interoperability into standards from the outset or by employing an interpreter for existing standards (ie developing tools capable of joining up standards).
While further work in this area is needed, we are already taking tentative steps to develop the tools needed to realise interoperability. For instance, we recently launched an online thesaurus to provide a simple interface for users of our website to build and/or store taxonomies and manage relationships between data concept schemes in an open, publically available space. We will be publishing further discussion papers in the coming months, taking the joined-up data conversation to a range of stakeholders to explore how this work can benefit other sectors.
A key part of our research and approach as a project is to invite collaboration and feedback from others. Keeping in mind the traction that the Data Revolution is now garnering and the corresponding recognition of the need to modernise statistical systems, we would invite all stakeholders engaged in post-2015 monitoring discussions to feedback on our initial discussion papers.
As Judith Randel, who was invited to participate on the High Level Forum for Official Statistics to present joined-up data, put it in her concluding remarks; one of the key things that needs to happen if we are to achieve the ambitious 2030 agenda is a cultural shift in perceptions around the role of data and partnerships. We are now starting to see that shift and it seems joined-up data will certainly be on the agenda.
 With the caveat that the Inter-Agency and Expert Group on SDG Indicators continues to refine the framework.
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