As governments and development organizations look to infrastructure to help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the need for high quality, reliable and multi-dimensional data and statistics has skyrocketed.
To learn more about the impact this data revolution is having on development and infrastructure decision-making, Katherine Maloney, KPMG in the US, sat down at UN Headquarters in New York City with Stefan Schweinfest, Director, UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs - Statistics Division and Davinder Sandhu, KPMG in India to discuss data, sustainable development and decision-making.
Katherine Maloney (KM): Over the past decade, there has been an explosion of data — not only more volume but also more sources. How has this impacted decision-making for infrastructure and development initiatives?
Davinder Sandhu (DS): In the past, I think many leaders would make their decisions based on little more than a hunch or a onedimensional view of the problem. The data revolution means that we can start to make really smart, evidence-based decisions that take into account multiple factors. As countries like India continue to invest into long-term infrastructure as part of our development path, data and evidence-based decisions have become increasingly important.
Stefan Schweinfest (SS): Davinder is absolutely right. And this has really pushed the topic of data and statistics onto center stage. Statistics used to be a very introspective business — collecting, curating and disseminating data — but now we are getting significant exposure. I spend a lot of my time building partnerships with public and private entities, communicating data and talking to the media whereas, in the past, statisticians had very little real influence on the decision-making process.
KM: What role does data play in helping governments and development organizations achieve the SDGs?
DS: The reality is that infrastructure underpins many of the objectives we hope to achieve through the SDGs. But we also recognize that infrastructure is long-term and expensive, so we need to make sure the investments we are making are not only delivering assets in the short-term, but also delivering on the SDG objectives to be achieved by 2030. And that requires a significant amount of data, from a number of different sources, to be analyzed and properly communicated.
SS: Data plays a massive role. At the UN Statistical Division, there are 230 indicators that we track to help gauge progress on the SDGs, across more than 190 countries. The data supports both ends of the spectrum — it helps guide decision-making so that investments can be better aligned to the SDGs, and it helps governments monitor their progress and adjust their strategy as their situations evolve between now and 2030.
KM: Is there a single source of good quality data for infrastructure decision-makers and investors?
SS: No, and that is a significant problem. Here at the UN Statistical Office, we rely primarily on the countries themselves to provide data through their own statistical office and then we work closely with the wider UN ecosystem for much of our data. For example, the World Health Organization (WHO) provides data through its statistical office on health and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) provides education statistics. Like many statisticians, our role has become much more about coordinating data than curating it.
DS: This is certainly an important role that is played by Stefan and his colleagues. I think countries like India often struggle to aggregate the data they receive from various official and non-official sources. And that means information isn’t always directed to the correct person or time is wasted in rekeying or ‘cleaning’ up data so that decisions can be made.
KM: Do all countries have the capacity to deliver good quality, trusted data?
SS: I think about three layers of capacity with statistics — resource capacity, technical capacity and institutional capacity — and we need to analyze all three when we consider a country’s national capacity. The UN Statistical Office has been very focused on helping our national counterparts build capacity and this has led to the development of our Global Action Plan that outlines what countries need to be doing in order to improve statistical capacity.
DS: India makes a good case in point, I believe. About 15 years ago, most of our statistics were conducted independently by line ministries and data was often kept in silos. But today, the Ministry of Statistics and Program Implementation is very highly regarded and plays a key role in centralizing data and statistics in the country. Given where we were, I think India now has a very robust statistical system. But everyone recognizes that it needs to continuously improve.
KM: The ability to disaggregate data has become increasingly important as decisionmakers seek to address the needs of specific segments within their populations so that nobody gets left behind. How is this impacting the complexity of data analytics and management?
SS: Obviously, the more detail you go into, the more complex and more expensive the analytics becomes. There are also big questions about the ethical implications of using some data. I think that, particularly with the introduction of geospatial information, the ability to drill down to very small segments of data is extremely powerful. But we need to be careful that we are using it appropriately and drawing the right conclusions from it.
DS: I would agree that disaggregated data can provide some very meaningful insights. The challenge in many countries is that there isn’t the right level of data to enable this type of analysis. Until recently, citizen feedback data in India was gathered by a show of hands at a village meeting or through local village councils so there are often technical and cultural barriers to disaggregating data that must be considered.
KM: What can those outside of the development community do to help improve the quality and access of data globally?
SS: I think governments and their relevant statistical offices will play a central role, not only in improving or conducting traditional statistical operations such as a national census, but also in helping improve the quality of the data they receive from other sources. Of course, the challenge often comes down to funding and investment. Government will need to invest more and I would hope the private sector would also contribute more. Global cooperation at all levels is a good first step.
DS: I would agree on the need for more cooperation and investment. The private sector is developing mountains of data and statistics every day and some of it could be very valuable in helping drive public policy and investment decisions. I think the key — to development growth, to sound infrastructure investments and to achieving the SDGs — lies in data. And, more importantly, in how we use it.