DUBAI: The idea of almost 2,000 statisticians meeting to talk about data, as they did at the recent UN World Data Forum in Dubai, is enough to make anyone’s eyes glaze over, but it would be foolish to ignore the important conversations they are having about the power of data to help solve some of the world’s biggest challenges, from poverty to global warming.
For instance, data from satellite imagery and radars can tell us about glaciers melting, deforestation and the state of algae in our oceans.
The potential of data to help with sustainable development was discussed in Dubai last month, along with how to ensure all individuals are accounted for in data collection and how to leverage new technologies. The event was the first in the region, following its first meeting in Cape Town in 2017.
Although the forum is only in its second year, progress has been made with the UN leading work globally through working groups on developing tools, governing systems and the principles that deal with issues of open data and data privacy, including the use of private-sector data.
“We live during a time of unprecedented challenge, but equally unprecedented and massive opportunity,” said Amina Mohammed, deputy secretary-general of the UN. “Our blueprint for addressing these challenges and seizing the opportunities is the 2030 Agenda for sustainable development. But to achieve the 17 Sustainable Goals (SDGs), we will need more and better data. With accurate, representative, inclusive and disaggregated data, we can understand the challenges we face and identify the most appropriate solutions for sustainable development.”
The SDGs were adopted by the UN to end poverty and protect the planet, including areas such as climate change, economic inequality, innovation, sustainable consumption, peace and justice.
The forum looked at how data can play a crucial role in saving and improving lives, whether in disaster preparedness and early warning systems, providing job opportunities for students or educating women about laws protecting them against discrimination. “It can strengthen trust in public institutions and unveil new opportunities,” Mohammed said. “But while it is clear that the data revolution is having an enormous impact, it has not benefited everyone equally.”
Since 1970, natural disasters have affected the lives of more than 460 million people in Africa, many of who could have been saved with better data and forecasting, according to Mohammed. In more than two thirds of countries, there is also a lack of gender disaggregated data on violence against women, which would allow experts to uncover patterns, and consequently, tackle the issue more efficiently.
All these issues work toward achieving the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. “We are nearing the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs, integrating all three dimensions of sustainability — economic, social and environmental — that will guide international development efforts and national policy through 2030,” said Liu Zhenmin, under-secretary-general for the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs. “To do so, it is essential to have relevant, timely, open and disaggregated data, which requires that all communities represented today fulfill a critical role and find ways to work across different domains and create partnership and synergies.”
Three years into the 2030 Agenda, Zhenmin said that national data can be used to help implement and monitor it.
“The unprecedented number of new initiatives and approaches for the improvement of data production and utilization raises the importance of data and statistics for the full implementation of the 2030 Agenda,” he said.
According to Mahmoud Mohieldin, senior vice president for the 2030 Development Agenda at the World Bank, “leaving no one behind” is an aspirational objective that must be translated into action by finding out how many people have not been accounted for. “The figures are very worrying,” he said. “For the low-income countries, we have no clue about services and support to around 40 percent of the population because they don’t have any kind of identification. As far as the official records, they don’t exist.”
The number is 6 percent higher for women in those countries, creating significant discrepancy in the field. Figures improve for middle-income countries where knowledge is more widespread and where close to 92 percent of people are identified. In upper middle-income countries, the number reaches almost 97 percent.
“Technology today is really helpful, and I’ve seen great transformation in identification when it has good policy and leadership,” Mohieldin said. “For the new digital economy, there is no way for the public to get access to services or to be part of the new economy without identification, and that identification needs to be electronic, secured and supported by systems. It’s the new DNA – you need better data systems, secured networks and artificial intelligence mastering the new codes and languages of the future.”
Being able to analyze an increasing amount of data is becoming a race against time. “When we look at the SDGs, it’s a challenge and if we don’t have systems to read this data, crunch it and give us advice in real time, we are losing this race,” said Omar Al-Olama, UAE Minister for Artificial Intelligence.
“The second challenge is that we need to be informed on a real-time basis, second by second, and deploying these systems in a way that the data actually (pools) directly into the AI algorithm or system would allow us to take much more informed decisions. We can leverage technology for us to take much more insightful decisions and to achieve the SDGs in the time frame set.”
He spoke of data shaping the future of our planet. “When it comes to data and new platforms, no one has it right and we’re all experimenting together,” Al-Olama said. “We also need to increase data and technology literacy across our companies and governments. People need to understand why it’s important for us to ride this wave to control systems in the future.”
There are currently 350,000 organizations worldwide collecting data for their areas of interest. But with the rise and inevitable evolution of cloud computing, opportunities have emerged for information-sharing and bringing data together from various systems. “We’re already starting to see evidence of that, not just for professionals, but also appropriate access for the public and interested parties,” said Clint Brown, director of product engineering at ESRI. “Systems are coming alive, computing power is becoming available and these cloud systems can do some amazing things.”
He gave the example of the entire Landsat imagery collection going back to 1970s, which is now available online for processing. “They’re huge datasets so we should think as a priority how do we work together, and make data and open up access in appropriate ways,” he added. “This opportunity for many people to participate is upon us.”
As the world prepares to take in an abundance of data in the near future, improved information systems, infrastructure and support in analysis will be needed. “Data and the statistical community are placed at the heart of driving the SDGs Agenda, which is a big responsibility that’s been given to all of us,” said Harpinder Collacott, executive director of Development Initiatives, an independent international organization that focuses on the role of data in driving poverty eradication and sustainable development. “What we do with that responsibility is really going to be critical in the implementation of the global goals.”
She said the voice of policy-makers, from national to sub-national, was particularly relevant in the field. “I’m not sure how much of it we will hear at the forum,” she said. “But it’s their needs that have to be driving the investments around the data that we produce so that they can make the right decisions and put in place the right policies and approaches to really implement the SDG agenda.”
Connections between the data community and political decision-makers are critical to realize the transformative power of data. “Data has to move beyond just improving data systems to improving people’s lives,” she added. “So we need to demonstrate that action pretty quickly, which is a challenge because we’re nearly a quarter of the way through the SDG agenda already and we need to think about how we are using the data that is already available — and we have huge amount — so we can start to spearhead some action and improve data systems, governance and interoperability as we go forward.”