The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) outline explicit, time-bound, and measurable targets for national development plans in sync with global concerns for climate security, equality, and development. With 169 multi-dimensional targets to be achieved by 2030, this ambitious program requires 232 statistical indicators or performance metrics from every country to monitor progress towards the SDGs.
The data revolution, which includes the open data movement, crowdsourcing, new information and communication technologies, and the sky-rocketing availability of big data, is already recognized by the UN’s initiative as a transformative force for the progression of global societies. The United Nations reports that 90% of the data in the world has been created in the last two years, and is projected to increase by 40% every year with the world’s capacity for storing data doubling every 40 months. Although a large majority of the data is categorized as “data exhaust,” or that which is passively collected from mobile phones, credit cards and social media, this unprecedented flood of information is what makes up critical “big data” pools.
Although this data collecting and storing capacity opens up incredible opportunities for monitoring, analyzing, and addressing inequality and under-development, the collection of granular data of developing economies by the National Statistical Systems is a difficult feat and spells trouble for the adequate implementation of the SDGs. There is still a systemic lag in the availability, access, and usability of this critical data for the countries most in need.
The United Nations has taken steps to better realize the opportunities presented by big data for the “global collective” while remaining in line with privacy concerns, ethics, and state sovereignty. The Secretary-General’s Independent Expert Advisory Group on a Data Revolution for Sustainable Development’s (IEAG) recommendations encourage a greater mobilization for a UN-led effort to mobilize the data revolution for sustainable development. Noted in the recommendation was a need to promote innovation to fill data gaps, mobilize resources to overcome inequalities between data-poor and data-rich countries, and foster coordination to enable the data revolution to fully realize all elements of the SDGs. The 2015 Development Agenda is an example of this attempt to lift standards for openness and transparency with the intention to support the SDGs through inclusive development. In this way, there is some recognition that many of the SDGs such as Goal Ten, Reduce Inequality are either affected directly or, like Goal Three, Good Health and Wellbeing, are impacted indirectly, by the accessibility and usability of big data.
Big Problems With Big Data
With many developing countries having limited resources and under-developed data collection systems to compile basic socio-economic statistics, the key issue is whether the SDGs and the production of new indicators are realistic and attainable globally. Data is critical for global, regional, and national policymaking, and without access to raw material, accountability for national development, and a genuine effort to meet SDGs is questionable.
Although the UN spear-headed attempts to capitalize on the “digital revolution,” the 2030 Agenda does not have the inherent foresight to appreciate the needs for improved data collection. In many countries facing the worst inequality indicators, including many nations in South East Asia, downstream data needs are fundamentally neglected. Additionally, for developed countries, although national interest and ownership are mentioned, the national collection of data and the degree of data sharing is ignored. Rather, a general encouragement of openness defines the SDGs. In this way, there is a high risk of inequality and bias, with concerning gaps between the data haves and have-nots already expanding. Factors such as language, poverty, lack of education and technology infrastructure are all goals to be addressed by the SDGs but are contributing issues crippling the use of big data to achieve such goals.
Despite initiatives such as Global Pulse, which seeks to responsibly open up valuable data stores across Indonesia and Uganda, the usefulness of these data privacy programs remains limited and focuses on privacy and protective purposes. Initiatives in public-private partnerships are also left wanting. Although they indeed show potential with major industries already engaging in data collection and sharing to inform their company policy, instances of partnership, like the 2016 Global Pulse-Twitter cooperation remain narrow. In this way, “data philanthropy,” whereby companies’ data is transmitted for sustainable development and action, remains largely theoretical. The SDGs have failed to put these private partnerships into action as well as overlook the potential pitfalls of informational sharing, particularly data monopiles.
Solutions and Strategies
Data is a key issue of Agenda 2030 and should play a fundamental role in sustainable development globally, with the potential to provide clear data-driven guides of decision making and policy action. It is inarguable that access to open data improves accountability, and as supported by the World Economic Forum, it is time to harness the intellectual creativity provided by this endless flow of cross-sectional data outside of the limitations of official statistics.
Clear action is required to take advantage of the data revolution wave. Firstly, a greater replication of the private sector in an international cooperation context is necessary. The analysis and action on big data among large companies is common practice and has shown to reap measurable results globally in terms of productivity, development, and accuracy. As Patrick Meier noted in Digital Humanitarians, through measures such as mapping unchartered territories or monitoring elections, the humanitarian sector can largely benefit from worldwide efforts to mirror successful corporate data strategies while also reducing costs and increasing the speed of aid action. Although concerns for national security and sovereignty are well-founded priorities for states’ maintaining much of their big data, sharing strategies for specific fields, e.g. water/food distribution rates and internet connectivity, could provide valuable insights into human development and allow targeted humanitarian efforts to uplift the most disadvantaged communities. With a clear data sharing strategy or platform for countries engaged in specific SDGs and through a multi-stakeholder data pool, states could be more responsive and engage in more efficient collective decision-making apparatuses to disperse resources fairly and achieve the SDGs more quickly. As found by the Global Sustainable Development Report, a data-intensive focus for international, national and local decision-makers will not be possible if data continues to be maintained and guarded by state-regulated companies and global hegemons.
Secondly, poor infrastructure and undeveloped hardware necessary to collect, mobilize, and share data is a crucial and neglected requirement paralyzing the efforts of developing economies. There is a broad range of affirmative actions needed to build up the capacities of Least Developed Countries so that they can equally share and engage in data collection and sharing, rather than relying on the information altruism of stronger countries. A global initiative to invest, build and support the infrastructure, technical expertise and integrity of these systems are imperative not only to support development for other SDGs but also to mitigate the dependency of less developed nations on the data and ICT’s of data-rich nations.
Thirdly, and in relation to the second recommendation, it is imperative that traditional power dynamics are disrupted to allow for greater and more equal information openness, transparency and usability. One way of doing so is to extend the institutional paradigms of organizations such as the International Council for Science (ICSU) and the InterAcademy Partnership (IAP). Their global accords which propose practices for open access to research data go further than the SDG’s value of openness and could provide frameworks for global cooperatives to share big data to maximize public benefit. Not only will these requirements hold data-rich countries accountable for investment and information sharing, but will also assist in bridging knowledge gaps in the interim.
Quick action is necessary to take advantage of the data revolution tide before greater informational inequalities emerge and embed themselves into global power dynamics. Through building up the capacity of developing economies to carry out their own data collection and analysis, they become emboldened to engage in data sharing for their own national development goals and the SDGs. It is critical to adopt greater national requirements for transparency not only to dislodge hierarchical organizational structures of information collection that separate data-rich and data-poor nations but also to encourage a more agile problem-solving approach to avoid political stagnation and hold nations accountable to their SGD commitments.
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