Opening the first part of the Board’s substantive discussion on the Data Revolution, the Secretary-General noted that rapid access to reliable, comprehensive and accurate data was one of the critical components for achieving sustainable development. Access to data empowered people and was a requirement for accountability and transparency, and formed the basis for good policy decisions. He noted that HLCP, HLCM and UNDG, in their considerations on a UN system that is fit-for-purpose, had highlighted the need for transparency and a more strategic UN system approach to revolutionize UN data capacity.
While stressing that the UN system already had a considerable capacity for data, noting the role of UN/DESA in its support to the Statistical Commission, the UN Group on the Information Society (UNGIS), which contributed to bringing communication technologies to all the world’s people, CEB’s own ICT Network as it worked to coordinate system-wide ICT policy practices, and UN Global Pulse project which seeked to leverage the “big data” phenomenon. The Secretary-General further congratulated UNDP for having been recognized by the International Aid Transparency Initiative for publishing open data from its projects around the world. The global benchmark for comprehensive aid information placed UNDP first among 68 agencies that were evaluated, and was an impressive achievement that deserved emulation.
Nevertheless, more could and need to be done to strengthen the UN system’s data capacity, as well as position the UN system as leaders in the collection and use of data for achieving sustainable development. In that light, the Secretary-General noted that he had recently received the report of his Independent Expert Advisory Group on the Data Revolution for Sustainable Development and noted that the co-chair of the Group, Professor Enrico Giovannini, had agreed to present the results of the report via video-conference from Rome. In addition, the Chair also noted that Ms. Alicia Barcena, Executive Secretary of ECLAC and a member of the Advisory Group, had agreed to inform the Board’s discussion by highlighting strategic issues and opportunities for the UN system based on the report's findings.
Professor Giovannini explained that the Working Group, during its two-month process, had attempted to produce a report that looked at the data revolution as a comprehensive phenomenon as well as an opportunity to foster the sustainable development agenda.
He declared that the data revolution was actually happening, not due to the report but because new technologies were leading to an exponential growth in the volume and types of data, along with an increase in the number of data producers coupled with an increase in the use of data by an ever-broader community of stakeholders. While the focus on data presented a significant opportunity for the post-2015 development agenda, it also came with risks that the UN and the broader development community must address. These included risks for privacy, human rights, and the possibility that poor quality data could be treated as high-quality data leading to poor decisions followed by a breakdown in trust between communities and those that served them. Professor Giovannini stressed the importance of a clear vision and strong leadership by the UN to overcome the risks and create an environment that encouraged the effective use of data to support the sustainable development agenda.
Professor Giovannini elaborated on two significant issues that the data revolution must address; invisibility and inequality. He noted that many gaps existed in the collection of basic population data and many people remained uncounted. Compounding the challenge was that the sustainable development goals would cover new issues that were barely covered by existing official statistics. With regard to inequality, he noted that data was not often equally distributed between countries and people, and that without action the divide between developed and developing countries, and the divide between those who knew how to use the data and those that did not would only grow. This was in addition to an existing divide between the private sector, which was harnessing the data revolution, and the public sector which was lagging behind.
Regarding the report’s recommendations, Professor Giovannini noted that they covered a wide range of issues that went well beyond statistics, and drew the CEB’s attention to four distinct areas: Principles and Standards; Technology, Innovation and Analysis; Governance and Leadership; and Capacity and Resources. He stressed the necessity to develop a global consensus on principles and standards, not only to cover statistical but also to legal, technical and other issues that would reduce risks to harm people but would also harness the power of data. Regarding technology, it was critical to enhance sharing for the common good and emphasize the need for new resources for capacity-building and development, as well as leadership for coordination and mobilization.
Professor Giovannini suggested that action on the data revolution could commence prior to any agreement on the SDGs, through, for example, the development of new statistical standards to cover the uncovered domains, as well as strengthen the quality of existing data and establish linkages with non-official data producers. He further suggested that each international organization could contribute by disseminating all existing data in open formats, which would send a strong global signal. This could be coupled with an effort to improve the quality of data produced by international organizations. He noted that organizations had invested significantly in individual capacity, and suggested a potential new direction of constructing a common “statistical cloud”. Further actions, that he characterized as “quick wins”, included the establishment of an SDG data lab to demonstrate the feasibility of the new approaches mentioned in the report which could lead to a platform for communities to explore data that includes a capacity to visualize.
Professor Giovannini’s remarks also included the need for an increase in investment in order to build capacity, and suggested that the 2015 Financing for Development Conference might offer an opportunity to address this aspect of the data revolution, leading to a decision to open a new stream of financing for data for development. In tandem with the identification of resources, it was important to increase the coordination of statistical capacity programmes, particularly through the building of data innovations networks. Furthermore, he suggested that organizing a world forum on data for sustainable development would support the effort to strengthen global partnerships for SDG data and serve as a global user forum and a way to broker global public and private partnerships for sharing data, especially for data owned by the private sector. Such an event could convene every three years with the first one organized by the end of 2015.
Professor Giovannini concluded his remarks by noting that during the report preparation process the Advisory Group had received many comments during an outreach phase, and that the leadership role of the United Nations remained unquestioned. He noted that organizations across the UN system were already engaged in much of this work, but that the Sustainable Development Goals presented an opportunity to develop a data capacity not just for monitoring but for achieving the goals, although all aspects of the data revolution would require substantial additional investment to cover new subjects and to ensure that no groups are excluded.
After thanking Professor Giovannini for his enlightening and informative presentation, the Secretary-General invited Ms. Alicia Barcena, the Executive-Secretary of ECLAC, and a member of the report’s advisory group, to offer her comments.
Ms. Barcena noted that significant quantities of data remained in the hands of the private sector, and the UN had a key role to play in ensuring that all data could be used as a global public good, especially through the brokering of public and private partnerships to share data. The UN was also well placed to strengthen and empower the public capacity to realize the potential of data for monitoring and acting. Ms. Barcena emphasized the need for standards and principles and for pressing for an open UN and open governments. Ms. Barcena concluded her comments by suggesting the creation of an inter-agency working group, under the auspices of the three CEB pillars – HLCM, HLCP and the UNDG – to present to CEB a programme that would examine ways for the UN to leverage “big data” as part of the data revolution, and to put data at the centre of the global public good, which was a task only the UN could achieve.
During the open discussion, CEB members congratulated Professor Giovannini on his presentation and, especially, the comprehensive and concise report, which provided clear guidance on leveraging data in all its forms to support the sustainable development agenda. Members noted that topics such as data coverage, reliability, and access had emerged as key issues and highlighted the importance of building these issues into the fabric of the post-2015 implementation agenda and also the SDGs. CEB members agreed that a revolution in the use of technology and data to solve development problems was currently underway, but noted that even though the development community had not leveraged this capability to its fullest capacity, it was not starting from ground zero, highlighting in particular the substantial basis for coordination that existed within the UN statistics community as well as support for expert groups on MDG data. There was general agreement, therefore, that responses to the data revolution report should focus on strengthening existing mechanisms, including existing data repositories maintained by many organizations. In this regard, the discussion revealed a high degree of collaborations across organizations on data collection and analysis.
Also during the discussion, CEB members raised several topics that should be addressed in any response to the report. Noting the importance of leading by example, members remarked on the need to establish standards and principles for an open United Nations, and highlighted the UN’s leadership role in advocating for open access to all data. Members also recognized that data governance was needed to ensure that these standards and principles were applied in practice. In this regard CEB members noted the importance of ensuring confidentiality and anonymity of data, particularly in sensitive areas such as humanitarian and relief operations. Furthermore, CEB members noted the link to cybersecurity to ensure data integrity, and also called for increased access to data, which several members suggested needed to be addressed, indicating that institutional leaders must be willing to overcome internal barriers to sharing of data.
Members recognized that although considerable excitement surrounded new forms of non-traditional data, monitoring and reporting on SDG achievement needed to happen upon a foundation of quality national statistics, and therefore support to strengthening this area needed to become a critical component of any action in response to the data revolution.
In closing the discussion, Professor Giovannini affirmed that, compared to the public sector, the private sector had made great strides in its capability to collect and leverage data, and without action the gaps in data usage between the private and public sector would widen. He also stressed that beyond the collection and organization of data, the UN community needed to also invest in analytics to use the data better for planning and to work towards an alignment of the data and decision cycles of organizations. He reiterated that the challenge involved not only statistics, which as many had remarked, already existed upon a solid foundation, but also to exploit “big data” for the SDGs. He encouraged the creation of an SDG data lab and to bring data scientists to work alongside the statisticians. He concluded with three points, starting with the need to improve the human capital to use data, and reiterated a recommendation within the report to establish a world-wide statistical education programme. Secondly, he noted the need for additional resources to expand the types of data available, since it was critical to integrate traditional data with new forms of data. Lastly, he stressed that the leadership of UN system comprised a powerful and unique force, and therefore noted that the CEB played an essential leadership role in realizing a data revolution for sustainable development.
The Secretary-General thanked Professor Giovannini for his presentation and the CEB members for their constructive contributions to the discussion. He commented on the importance of a data revolution for the issue and the Board agreed that the UN system urgently needed to form a coherent approach to the Data Revolution.
The CEB called upon the HLCM, HLCP and UNDG, through a coordinated effort drawing on their respective areas of expertise and in collaboration with existing inter-agency mechanisms, to develop a coherent programme of work focusing on carrying forward a data revolution to be presented to CEB at its 1st regular session for 2015. UNDP, UNESCO, UNFPA, UNICEF, UN/DESA, UN/Regional Commissions and the World Bank Group all agreed to lead this effort.