Building Modern Data Systems for Sustainable Development: A high-level roundtable

Written by TReNDS Staff

SDSN TReNDS and the Inter-American Development Bank hosted a high-level roundtable discussion of TReNDS’ new report on modern statistical systems, Counting on the World, on October 25th in Washington, DC. The meeting brought together leaders from prominent global think tanks, finance institutions, multilateral agencies, and civil society organizations to discuss the key recommendations of the report and how we can turn them into concrete actions. Following a welcome from Juan Cristobal Bonnefoy of the InterAmerican Development Bank and opening comment from event and network Chair, Shaida Badiee of Open Data Watch, Counting on the World author Jessica Espey gave a presentation on the themes and recommendations of the report.

One key recommendation in the report is that modern statistical systems serve three functions; enabling historical measurement (particularly capitalizing on legacy data systems), facilitating effective management through access to real or near-time data, and enabling future forecasting, using modelling and projections. A discussion ensued around the key functions of statistical systems. Larry Sperling, US State Department, raised a question of how we can make systems useful to the users and beneficiaries of data, across levels of government and types of stakeholders.

A chief recommendation of Counting on the World is the creation of Chief Data Officers (CDOs) within the executive branch of national governments. CDOs would work alongside apolitical Chief Statisticians and be tasked with identifying new sources of data from inside and outside government, negotiating partnerships between the government and non-governmental actors, coordinating data sharing and standards, and advancing investments in innovative technologies. A representative of the UN Statistical Division highlighted the ongoing critical role that statisticians play within their governments, and the need to avoid creating two parallel tracks whereby new stakeholders aren’t able to interact with the national statistical office (NSO), and NSOs who aren’t empowered to interact with external actors. Grant Cameron of the World Bank suggested that Chief Data Officers be internal coordinators for cross-government interactions, as well as champions for government transparency and accountability.

Financing modern statistical systems will require a global effort but also more accurate incentives. José Antonio Mejija of the Inter-American Development Bank offered that instead of framing data production as a recurring cost, it can and should be framed as an investment with returns that we can measure. Other participants, including Jenna Slotin of the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data and Samantha Custer of AidData suggested that the global data community needs to get better at articulating the value of data that is generated collectively, to incentivise greater engagement and co-creation of data at the national level.

A theme of the meeting was the challenge of engaging new stakeholders in improved data collection. John MacArthur of the Brookings Institution gave an example of a private company with high-quality data on agriculture and food security (SDG 2). His question; how do we identify, and engage the best data producers and then get them to be a reliable part of a high quality monitoring system? What are the incentives? In response, it was suggested that thematic, epistemic communities needed to work together – perhaps faciliated by UN agencies – to identify the best data sources from both public and private actors.

Jean-Louis Sarbib of Development Gateway also asked about contributor incentives. He focused on local-level data collectors and citizens who often participate in generating primary data but are not involved in its subsequent analysis or use. If citizens are excluded from the data analysis and interpretation, and can not see how the data impacts their lives, what are the incentives for them to participate?

With the inputs received at this event and through other public consultations, TReNDS will work to identify key sponsors for priority recommendations and best practices to implement them. The group will continue to discuss the findings and recommendations contained in the report at public events including the Data for Development Festival in spring 2018 and the World Data Forum in fall 2018.

Originally published at on October 30, 2017.