Rating a revolution

Four years on, is the data revolution really happening?

Written by Jonathan Glennie

Possibly the first reference to a “data revolution” in the context of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) was in the report published by the High-level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda in 2013, two years before the SDGs were adopted in New York. It called for “a data revolution for sustainable development, with a new international initiative to improve the quality of statistics and information available to citizens.”

And its summary of the SDG data challenge has not yet been bettered: “[The revolution in information technology] remains largely disconnected from the traditional statistics community at both global and national levels. The post-2015 process needs to bring them together and start now to improve development data.”

But even that ambitious vision was just one part of it. The report also encourages the data community to “take advantage of new technology, crowd sourcing, and improved connectivity to empower people with information on the progress towards the targets.” 

International integration, national systematization, and citizen empowerment. Significant progress on all three areas would add up to a data revolution.

So, in the four years since the SDG journey formally began, how have we done? Has a revolution taken place, or did we expect too much? 

International integration

One way to judge progress on technological integration at the global level is to look at the SDG indicator classifications. In 2015, statistics experts from across the world came together to classify the 232 indicators into three types: Tier I (methodology and data available), Tier II (methodology available, but no regular data) and Tier III (no agreed methodology, let alone data). When they finished their work (in 2016) a full 88 indicators (38%) were classified as Tier III.

Fast forward through three years of hard work, and there are now only 34 indicators so classified. Advances in techniques with Earth observation, for example, helped enable the progression of Indicator 6.6.1 from Tier III to Tier I; this means data are now available to begin trend analysis for that indicator.

If such reclassifications continue at the same pace (with an average of 18 occurring per year), there will be no more Tier III indicators by 2021. However, it is not all good news. In the same three-year period, only 23 indicators have shifted into Tier I. Unless that part of the puzzle speeds up we could be waiting until well after 2030 – the SDG deadline – before we are even able to measure progress on indicators selected some 20 years beforehand!

Table 1. Change in indicator classification over 3 years (via UN Statistics Division)

Tier I Tier II Tier III
September 2016 81 57 88
May 2019 104 88 34
Change +23 +31 -54
Average annual change +8 +10 -18

National systematization

What about the national level? Overarching international collaboration can help spur progress, but it is the gritty work of the National Statistics Offices (NSOs) that will finally deliver the change everyone wants to see. And although mesmerizing satellite and big data applications draw the biggest crowds at data meetings around the world, it is back in capital cities where that crucial gap from technical possibility to actual data production and use is bridged, as technologies are translated into effective and accountable data gathering mechanisms.

We are seeing progress here, too. There was a time when national statisticians may have feared being displaced by new data tech. Not anymore. Following a blitz of sensitization and encouragement, the SDG data revolution has made NSOs more central than ever, and previously reluctant bureaucrats are often now active participants in radical change.

According to PARIS21 and other experts interviewed for this article, a high number of national statistics offices are using new data sources, either in pilots or now fully incorporated into official statistical methodology.

And this collaboration between NSOs and new data partners is important well beyond SDG monitoring. While the SDG-led revolution may have provoked progress, there is much more to data gathering than feeding the global SDG beast, and work to build an evidence base for national development will continue well past the SDG deadline of 2030.

Citizen empowerment

There is one last aspect of the revolution that we need to look at before we can call it a success – and it might be the most important of all: how everyday citizens are empowered by this revolution.  Data is not an end in itself. How is it used? What for? And by whom? 

One measure of citizen empowerment is data openness, and here results are mixed. According to the Open Data Barometer (ODB), governments do seem to be gradually opening up on data. The Open Data Inventory (ODIN) tells a similar story of improving national statistical systems, even in some of the world’s poorer countries. But, says the ODB, even among the 30 countries most committed to open data, fewer than one in 5 datasets are open and governments “still treat open data as a side project.”

Open data norms may have shifted following pressure and campaigning, but power is stubborn in its grip, and the world seems replete with politicians defiantly refusing to share the evidence that might see them held to account more effectively.

And in this vortex between political leadership and the underlying civil bureaucracy, the role of the NSOs again comes center stage. The dual challenge today is that while on some issues there is still not enough data, on others there is far too much! So who decides what are the relevant statistics? Who controls quality? Who builds the infrastructure that will outlast even the greediest of political masters? Those bureaucrats in grey suits turn out to be one of the last bulwarks between something approaching systematic analysis and all-out data chaos. Insisting on good quality and relevant data becomes a political position when so many are doing their best to fudge the line.  


While there is progress at all three levels, it still feels like the beginning of the road – more of an insurgency than a full-fledged revolution. But amid the sound and fury of populist politics and fake news, the leaders of that insurgency have set a bold course set towards better and more accountable national data in the 21st century.