Counting on the World: Building Modern Data Systems for Sustainable Development


There is no one right way to go about harnessing the data revolution for sustainable development, and there is not one perfect statistical system. The process of bringing on board a wide range of actors, each using different methodologies and approaches to produce, analyze, curate and disseminate data, will be messy and challenging. How can national statistics systems evolve to leverage this data revolution?

Key Insights

Engage multiple actors

Private companies, academia, multilateral institutions, and civil society can support governments with the production, cleaning, compilation, dissemination and analysis of data.

appoint a chief data officer (CDO)

Multi-stakeholder approaches to data for development can best be supported by a high-level government appointee focused on data – the Chief Data Officer (CDO).


With the right, collaborative environments and robust oversight, common standards and protocols can guide the inputs of a wide range of different actors.




Jessica Espey wrote this report with input from members of SDSN TReNDS including Barbara Ryan, Bram Govaerts, Calogero Carletto, Chukwudozie Ezigbalike, Eduardo Sojo Garza Aldape, Emmanuel Letouzé, Enrico Giovannini, Eric Swanson, Laveesh Bhandari, Molly Jahn, Nicolas de Cordes, Philipp Schönrock, Robert S. Chen, Sabina Alkire, Shaida Badiee, Tom A. Moultrie, Virginia Murray, Alex Fischer, and Marc A. Levy. Specific text boxes were provided by Alex Fischer, Tom Moultrie, Virginia Murray, Marc Levy, Eric Swanson, and Shaida Badiee, as well as Fredy Rodriguez (CEPEI) and Deirdre Appel (Open Data Watch). The group would like to acknowledge and thank the following people for their thoughtful inputs: Melika Edquist and Guido Schmidt-Traub (SDSN), Alison Holder (Equal Measures), William Sonntag and Steven Ramage (Global Earth Observation Secretariat), and Sarah Lucas (Hewlett Foundation).

We are particularly grateful to the Hewlett Foundation for their generous support for the work of SDSN TReNDS, and to the Federal Government of Germany for their support for select, data-focused Solutions Initiatives (SDSN projects which aim to promote new technologies, business models, institutional mechanisms, policies and combinations thereof that can dramatically accelerate progress towards sustainable development). The title of this report was inspired by the UN Secretary General’s Independent Expert Advisory Group on the Data Revolution. Their report, A World That Counts, was published in 2015. It provided a comprehensive assessment of the state of current data and information systems and the potential offered by the ‘data revolution’ for the monitoring and achievement of sustainable development. Five of the original independent expert group are members of SDSN TReNDS and it is our intention to build upon that seminal work, providing a more up-to-date, practical pathway to achieve modern data systems that integrate the most promising aspects of the data revolution for sustainable development.