The return on investment in data interventions


Since negotiations to shape and define the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) began in 2013, the importance of data for improving sustainable development outcomes has played a starring role. There have been calls for additional investments into the data sector. Yet the international community has so far little considered the incentives of funders and investors. Framing these discussions with funders and investors in mind and using some of their common language–e.g. “return on investments” or ROI–will be critical to engage and sustain a broad investment community for these data needs.

Over the course of six months, SDSN TReNDS and the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data reported on the value of investments made into data applications and systems, including the impacts of capacity development and data use.

A joint project of

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Topics include

  • Data modeling reducing risk of violent crime in Atlantic City

  • Innovative health data helping reduce maternal and infant mortality in Bangladeshi slums

  • Empowering Nigerian citizens to curb public spending waste through open data

  • Earth observation data creating positive social impact and economic returns

  • Reducing disease incidence and improving outbreak response with data sharing via SMS in Uganda

  • Value analysis of the census in New Zealand

  • Benefits of investing in civil registration and vital statistics

  • Investments in the Philippine Statistics Authority creating efficiencies and timely, more reliable data

  • Improving data on hand pumps for better water access

  • How household surveys shape policy leading to social and economic benefits

Common Lessons

What we learned from our comparative assessment

It is possible to deduce a numeric return on investment for many different data approaches.

Most forms of socioeconomic data can have a positive social impact when systematically used to inform policy.

Innovation requires both high-level leadership and local government buy-in if it is to be sustainable.


Data have been recognized as an engine of the modern economy and as paramount to achieving the SDGs. Investments into data systems can support a range of solutions, from addressing crime to improving water infrastructure.

Specific recommendations for data funders and investors based upon this research include:


Invest across all parts of the data value chain, from production to analysis, from curation to communication.

This limited selection of case studies suggests that funding data communication, as well as systematic evaluations of data impact, will be crucial to encourage sustained, long-term funding and support for robust national data systems.


Encourage innovation and support data collection approaches that employ new technologies and methods.

This should not occur at the expense of investing in traditional official statistical methods, such as undertaking censuses and related post-enumeration surveys, building robust CRVS systems, and supporting regular household surveys. These are the building blocks upon which innovation can take place, and against which we can benchmark results.


make local and government engagement a core condition of funding data projects.

When funding data projects that are not initiated by government, make local and government engagement a core condition so that there is a clear plan to take the innovation to scale and ensure sustainable implementation after the non-governmental actor steps back.


Support iteration when testing and scaling up new data collection approaches or other related methodologies.

Many of these cases provide examples of how solutions can be improved over time, so donors should not be afraid of failure when encouraging innovation.

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