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The Data Revolution and Sustainable Development for All

A World That Counts: UN Speakers on How We Can Mobilise the Data Revolution for Sustainable Development

“Data are the lifeblood of decision-making at all levels, from individual to international. So improving data is important - it’s almost a development goal to itself. As some have said, if you can’t build data, how can you build a country?”

Those words were spoken by Professor Enrico Giovannini, Chair of the Independent Advisory Expert Group to the UN Secretary on Data Revolution. He’s a man that knows that data can change the world - a topic he explored at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) on 2 February 2015 in a talk on The World That Counts: The Data Revolution for Post-2015 Sustainable Development.

“It’s not just about statistics,” he explained, “because data is more than statistics. We’re generating data all the time, both consciously and unconsciously - the way you all did coming here with your cell phones or checking your email. We are producing data every second of our lives, and that all goes somewhere - and some people can use it, and some can’t.”

Therein lies a serious problem.

Thanks to the explosive growth in new technologies, there’s been an exponential increase in the volume and types of data available. Governments, companies, researchers and citizens are in a ferment of innovation, experimentation and adaptation to a world in which data are bigger, faster and more detailed than ever before. This is the Data Revolution...and unfortunately, the revolution is not evenly distributed.

Despite considerable progress in recent years, many people do not have access to important data, and many important aspects of people’s lives and environmental conditions are not being measured - in some cases, whole groups of people are not being counted. This can lead to the denial of basic rights, to economic disempowerment and to environmental degradation.

Without data, we cannot know, for example,  how many people are born and how long they live; how many men, women and children still live in poverty; how many children need educating; how many doctors to train or schools to build; whether greenhouse gas emissions are increasing or fish stocks are dangerously low; and whether economic activity is expanding.

“We are creating a world more unbalanced than it is already - and than we’d like it to be,” said Giovannini. “Unless we change the ways we approach data and run policies, we will be in trouble.”

Data for Sustainability

Since 2000, the effort involved in monitoring the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) has spurred increasing investment to improve data for monitoring. As a result, more is known about the state of the world than ever before.

In 2015, the world will embark on an even more ambitious initiative, a new development agenda underpinned by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Achieving these goals will require integrated action on social, environmental and economic challenges - and yet another significant increase in the data and information available.

“The MDGs have existed for 15 years, and still many people don’t understand them,” said fellow speaker and Special Advisor to the UN Secretary General - and former Cabinet Minister of the Federal Republic of Nigeria - Amina Mohammed. “With the SDGs, we need to bring society, economics and politics together - and people have to be involved. People have to understand how they fit in.”

Mohammed discussed the possibility of a common vision of sustainable development, and brought home the importance of the SDGs, and the urgency of addressing them right away.

“This is going to be the first generation that has a chance to end poverty - and the last generation that can end climate change. We need to take this opportunity and address this challenge now.”

Thinking Global, Acting Local

The Data Revolution is of particular importance to Africa, as Pali Lehohla, Secretary-General of Statistics South Africa, pointed out.

“Africa has missed a lot,” he said. “We missed out on the Industrial Revolution; we missed out on the Agricultural Revolution - it’s criminal that the continent with the most arable land and the best weather is not able to feed itself. We can’t afford to miss out on the Data Revolution as well. We need to use it to understand the world, and change it for the better.”

For that to happen, Mohammed noted, and for the world to succeed in the ambitious project of meeting the new SDGs, we need the public and private sector to work together. We need NGOs to forge partnerships with businesses. And we need universities like UWC to develop fresh ways of thinking - new resources, new curricula, new approaches to dealing with data.

“We need to ask ourselves what kind of institutions and networks we need for the kind of society we desire,” Giovannini agreed. “We need young people to employ their hopes, their vision, their skills. And I hope future generations of professors will help them develop new ways of moving forward the Data Revolution.”

A World That Counts

The talk was the first step of a StatsSA outreach programme exploring the recently-released A World That Counts report on the data revolution, and what it means for sustainable development for rich and poor alike.

“We really want to use this document in order to start negotiations with the entire world towards the sustainability agenda,” said Mohammed. “Read it - it’s a really easy read.