02/12/2014 08:44 GMT | Updated 01/02/2015 05:59 GMT

Are You up for a Data Revolution?

An advisory group to the United Nations is calling for a revolution. It won't be taking people to the streets, ousting governments or causing bloodshed, but it will overhaul the data driving governments' decisions.

An advisory group to the United Nations is calling for a revolution. It won't be taking people to the streets, ousting governments or causing bloodshed, but it will overhaul the data driving governments' decisions.

The principles are contained in the report "A world that counts", commissioned by the UN Secretary General. The paper says that new data are needed if the world is to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals that the UN will agree next year.

So where is the revolution? There is nothing new in measuring progress towards certain goals. In companies, operations and performance indicators are established according to business objectives. At school, students strive for good grades aiming at a future profession. In all sectors, the report argues, "data are the lifeblood of decision-making" as they allow to plan and track results. The problem is that there isn't yet a measurement for sustainable development.

Next year governmental delegations will decide new global targets replacing the Millennium Development Goals agreed in 2000. These will include ending poverty and hunger, combating climate change, protecting the environment, achieving gender equality, ensuring health, education, access to water and energy, as well as economic growth for all.

When it comes to monitoring these goals, the report reveals a paradox. The world is creating an unprecedented amount of information (90% of the existing data have been generated in the last two years) and to an extent that raises concerns about private life. Yet, "huge data and knowledge gaps remain about some of the biggest challenges we face." Some examples:

"There is almost no useful data on chemical pollutants, despite toxic waste dumping being a serious environmental and health issue in some countries."

"Gender inequality and the undervaluing of women's activities [...] in every sphere has been replicated in the statistical record."

"Months into the Ebola outbreak [...] it is still hard to know how many people have died, or where."

To cover the gaps, the advisory group calls for a data revolution. They say that every country should collect high quality and independent information, which is timely, disaggregated by social groups and regions, understandable and open to the public - with exceptions of course for security or privacy concerns.

Most importantly, they say that achieving the Sustainable Development Goals "will require integrated action on social, environmental and economic challenges". In academic institutions and think tanks there is a growing movement of economists trying to design metrics that match data on economic development, social welfare and environmental sustainability.

At present, however, only one of these three pillars is supported by a strong, timely and agreed indicator. Since 1934, when economist Simon Kuznets calculated the US national income, Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has been used to measure economic performance. Adopted to re-launch the American economy following the Great Depression, the indicator has then expanded and spread across countries becoming a proxy for development and power. It is now the most important number used in governments' decisions.

GDP focuses on the goal of economic growth, which brings money into public coffers and a degree of social prosperity. But it does not disclose anything about other components of well being, such as the quality of the environment and equal opportunities, for example. Already in the 1930s Kuznets cautioned that "the welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measurement of national income". From this perspective, the proposals of the report to develop a new set of data could be revolutionary, but the point is: who will dare challenge the most powerful number in the world?

The views and opinions expressed in this blogpost are solely those of the author and do not represent the position of current or past employers.


Photo: Kindergarten Child in Myanmar. UN Photo/Kibae Park. Photo available under a Creative Commons licence.