Economic Progress

How data can drive development and transform society

Jeffrey D. Sachs
Director, The Earth Institute, Columbia University
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Economic Progress

The data revolution is rapidly transforming every part of society. Elections are managed with biometrics, forests are monitored by satellite imagery, banking has migrated from branch offices to smartphones, and medical x-rays are examined halfway around the world. With a bit of investment and foresight, spelled out in a new report, prepared by the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), on Data for Development, the data revolution can drive a sustainable development revolution, and accelerate progress toward ending poverty, promoting social inclusion, and protecting the environment.

The world’s governments will adopt the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at a special United Nations summit on September 25. The occasion will likely be the largest gathering of world leaders in history, as some 170 heads of state and government adopt shared goals that will guide global development efforts until 2030. Of course, goals are easier to adopt than to achieve. So we will need new tools, including new data systems, to turn the SDGs into reality by 2030. In developing these new data systems, governments, businesses, and civil-society groups should promote four distinct purposes.

The first, and most important, is data for service delivery. The data revolution gives governments and businesses new and greatly improved ways to deliver services, fight corruption, cut red tape, and guarantee access in previously isolated places. Information technology is already revolutionizing the delivery of health care, education, governance, infrastructure (for example, prepaid electricity), banking, emergency response, and much more.

The second purpose is data for public management. Officials can now maintain real-time dashboards informing them of the current state of government facilities, transport networks, emergency relief operations, public health surveillance, violent crimes, and much more. Citizen feedback can also improve functioning, such as by crowd-sourcing traffic information from drivers. Geographic information systems (GIS) allow for real-time monitoring across local governments and districts in far-flung regions.

The third purpose is data for accountability of governments and businesses. It is a truism that government bureaucracies cut corners, hide gaps in service delivery, exaggerate performance, or, in the worst cases, simply steal when they can get away with it. Many businesses are no better. The data revolution can help to ensure that verifiable data are accessible to the general public and the intended recipients of public and private services. When services do not arrive on schedule (owing to, say, a bottleneck in construction or corruption in the supply chain), the data system will enable the public to pinpoint problems and hold governments and businesses to account.

Finally, the data revolution should enable the public to know whether or not a global goal or target has actually been achieved. The Millennium Development Goals, which were set in the year 2000, established quantitative targets for the year 2015. But, although we are now in the MDGs’ final year, we still lack precise knowledge of whether certain MDG targets have been achieved, owing to the absence of high-quality, timely data. Some of the most important MDG targets are reported with a lag of several years. The World Bank, for example, has not published detailed poverty data since 2010.

The data revolution can end the long lags and dramatically improve the quality of the data. For example, rather than relying on household surveys every few years to calculate the mortality rate, systems of civil registration and vital statistics can collect mortality data in real time, with the added benefit of information on cause of death.

Likewise, poverty data could be collected at relatively low cost and with much higher frequency than today, by using smart phones to replace paper-based surveys. Some analysts have suggested that the use of mobile phones could bring down the cost of surveys by up to 60% in some East African countries over a ten-year period. Private companies, such as Gallup International, could work alongside the more traditional public-sector statistical offices to accelerate data collection.

The data revolution offers a breakthrough opportunity for service delivery, management, accountability, and validation, thanks to a dense ecosystem of technologies that collect information in multiple ways: remote sensing and satellite imagery, biometric data, GIS tracking, facilities-based data, household surveys, social media, crowd-sourcing, and other channels.

To support the SDGs, such data should be publicly available for all countries at high frequency – at least within one year for key targets, and in real time in sectors where service delivery is vital (health, education, and the like). Private companies, including telecoms, social marketing companies, systems designers, survey firms, and other information providers, should all be integrated into the data “ecosystem.”

In preparing the new report, the SDSN teamed up with several partner agencies to prepare a “needs assessment” on how to launch the data revolution for the SDGs. The report offers an action plan that builds on partnerships between national statistical systems and private information firms and other non-governmental data providers. As the report emphasizes, low-income and lower-middle-income countries will need financial help to create these new data systems.

While the cost estimates are necessarily provisional, especially in this era of disruptive technological change, the new study suggests that proper data systems for the SDGs will require at least $1 billion per year to cover all of the 77 lower-income countries. Of that sum, around half should be financed through official development assistance, which implies an increment of at least $200 million per year above current donor flows.

Now is the time for such an increased commitment of funding. In July, the world will assemble in Addis Ababa for the International Finance for Development Conference, and just weeks after that, at UN Headquarters to adopt the SDGs in late September. With quick action before these two summit meetings, the world will be ready to launch the SDGs with the data systems that they need to succeed.

This article is published in collaboration with Project Syndicate. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Jeffrey D. Sachs, Professor of Sustainable Development, Professor of Health Policy and Management, and Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, is also Special Adviser to the United Nations Secretary-General on the Millennium Development Goals.

Image: An illustration picture shows a projection of binary code on a man holding a laptop computer. REUTERS

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