Sustainable Data for Sustainable Development – calls for a data revolution from World Statistics Day

17th December 2015

The Royal Statistical Society’s call to champion a data revolution has been backed by 45 signatories. Published on World Statistics Day, on the 20th October 2015, the statement asks for wider recognition of the importance of data for policy making and for accountability in all countries of the world.

A revolution starts with an idea, but to become a reality, it has to move to a practical proposition based on getting things done. And getting things done needs money. That is one of the calls for change presented by Claire Melamed, Secretary of the UN Secretary General's Data Revolution Independent Expert Advisory Group in the report ‘A World That Counts: Mobilising The Data Revolution for Sustainable Development.'

The UN report asked in 2014 for governments to work in collaboration with forward looking and socially responsible private institutions, civil society and academia. Organisations that can help to set and enforce legal frameworks and policies to ensure data quality and independence, as well as the security and data privacy for individuals.

In the lead up to the launch of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in September, the report by a High-Level Panel set up by the UN Secretary General to advise on the Post-2015 Development Agenda, recognised that development efforts are hampered by a lack of basic data about the social and economic circumstances in which people live.

On World Statistics Day organisations around the globe united in their call for ways to improve this. Stefan Schweinfest, Director for the UN Statistics Division, said in a web message, ‘Better statistics bring better lives. The call for better data for sustainable development resonates strongly with all of us.

‘The 2030 sustainable development agenda epitomises the challenges but also the opportunities ahead of us. The agenda itself recognises the centrality of statistics and data, to development. The formulation of a new global, regional, and national indicator architecture infrastructure [...] uniquely opens the door for an interactive dialogue with policy decision makers at all levels.’

Speaking at the World Statistics Day celebration at the Royal Statistical Society, UK National Statistician John Pullinger, said part of the solution to using data well is emphasising the necessity of reliable and robust data, because data need to be trustworthy to act upon.

The Royal Statistical Society formed an International Development Working Group (IDWG) in 2013 to consider how we can support statistics and statisticians in poorer countries. The IDWG promotes debate and discussion, engages in advocacy, and is also considering where it can support capacity building initiatives.

The group of global signatories said in a statement, ‘to abolish poverty everywhere, in all its forms, the world will need to ensure that everyone is counted, that progress is being monitored and that this information is made available in an accessible and useable form as widely as possible.

‘This will require a true data revolution, one that makes use of the possibilities provided by new technology, and also one that champions ethical use of information about individuals.’

The challenges of the new development agenda require new approaches, including a greater emphasis on open data and the use of new data sources. Taking advantage of the opportunities provided by new technology and big data and national statistical systems are central to this effort. These systems – set up and financed by governments to collect, process and disseminate the information needed to manage government activities – are crucial. They operate within a framework of legislation and ethical principles that promote objectivity, independence, confidentiality and accountability.

These principles are likely to be even more important over the next 15 years than they have been in the past. Innovation and machine learning holds possible benefits which need leadership if many are not to be left to lag behind, or left out.

Considerable progress has been made throughout the world in building and strengthening the capacity of national statistical systems since the launch of the Millennium Development Goals in 2000, but much still remains to be done.

Jenny Church, Chair of The Royal Statistical Society's International Development Working Group, believes that to meet the data challenges of the SDGs, national statistical systems must be properly financed, the development of statistical skills and expertise must be supported, and access to new tools and technology must be provided.

Support must also be provided not just for the collection of data, but for its transformation into actionable information for practical use.

A true data revolution that puts accurate and useable information into the hands of everyone who needs it, especially the poor and the marginalised, must be a collective pursuit.

As policy makers, funders, and campaigners use more and improved quality data for making better decisions, we will be able to make better investments, better innovations and better collaborations.

To see more about the Royal Statistical Society's call to support a data revolution for better data, for better lives, see their website: