What is the true value of data? New series on the return on investment of data interventions

Written by Jay Neuner
Case studies prepared by Jessica Espey and Hayden Dahmm with members of SDSN TReNDS 

All case studies now available!


In today’s information age, data are currency. High-profile examples come from the corporate sector, where developing insights from and selling access to consumer data have created entire industries. We can even place a monetary value on individuals’ data. From these examples, we see that investing in data has a clear return on investment (ROI) for the private sector.

But what is the ROI of investing in data for altruistic means–e.g., for sustainable development?

We have launched a series of case studies to answer this question in collaboration with the Global Partnership on Sustainable Development Data. The ten examples we profile range from earth observation data gathered via satellites to investments in national statistics systems, with costs from just a few hundred thousand dollars (US) per year to millions over decades.

The series includes efforts to revamp existing statistical systems. It also supports the growing movement to invest in less traditional approaches to data collection and analysis beyond statistical systems–such as through private sector data sources or emerging technologies enabled by the growth of the information and communications technology (ICT) sector.

Some highlights from the case studies–all available now:

An SMS-based system called mTRAC, implemented in Uganda, has supported significant improvements in the country’s health system–including halving of response time to disease outbreaks and reducing medication stock-outs, the latter of which resulted in fewer malaria-related deaths.

NASA’s and the U.S. Geological Survey’s Landsat program–satellites that provide imagery known as earth observation data–is enabling discoveries and interventions across the science and health sectors, and provided an estimated worldwide economic benefit as high as US$2.19 billion as of 2011.

BudgIT, a civil society organization making budget data in Nigeria more accessible to citizens through machine-readable PDFs and complementary online/offline campaigns, is empowering citizens to partake in the federal budget process.

International nonprofit BRAC is ensuring mothers and infants in the slums of Bangladesh are not left behind through a data-informed intervention combining social mapping, local censuses, and real-time data sharing. BRAC estimates that from 2008 to 2017, 1,087 maternal deaths were averted out of the 2,476 deaths that would have been expected based on national statistics.

Atlantic City police are developing new approaches to their patrolling, community engagement, and other activities through risk modeling based on crime and other data, resulting in reductions in homicides and shooting injuries (26 percent) and robberies (37 percent) in just the first year of implementation.

In 2013, the Philippines merged multiple data producing agencies into a single institution: the Philippines Statistics Authority. In this case study, you’ll learn how this initiative improved the timeliness of national and regional accounts; opened up national statistical data, including microdata; innovated the way the Philippines conducts household survey and censuses; and is deriving value from a new national identification system.

According to a 2014 study, the New Zealand census will return to the national economy NZ$5 for every NZ$1 invested over the next 25 years. The census’s contributions to other areas, such as inclusion and empowerment of the Māori, are documented in this case study.

Household surveys are a powerful analytical tool that can shed light on how households interact with services and how interventions affect their wellbeing. This case study evaluates the return on investment from the Living Standards Measurement Survey.

With over 40 percent of the world’s population facing water scarcity, increasing the reliability of water access is essential to sustainable development. Read this case study to learn how the sensor-driven Smart Handpump project can tackle this challenge.

How do civil registration and vital statistics (CRVS) ensure services are supported and people are empowered? Learn in this report how CRVS is a key data source to monitor 12 of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 67 of the 230 SDG indicators.

Each of these examples has revealed that investment in a data intervention means not just supporting emerging technologies, but also funding knowledge-based capacity-building and helping to build the systems that enable data sharing. They illustrate why knowing the true ROI of data investments is critical to considerations of SDG financing. And they are real-world examples of the varying data investments that are not only possible, but that will be fundamental to SDG achievement.

We hope you enjoy this window into the world of data for sustainable development.

Questions? Comments? Contact us at trends@unsdsn.org.