How Is Public Data Produced?

The 2016 Global Peace Index (GPI) launched recently. Along with its usual ranking of most to least peaceful countries it included a section analyzing the capacity for the global community to effectively measure progress in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), specifically Goal 16, the peace goal. The GPI’s analysis of statistical capacity (pp. 73-94) motivates a critical question: Where does data come from, and why does it get produced? This is important, because while the GPI notes that some of the Goal 16 targets can be measured with existing data, many cannot. How will we get all this new data?

Some of the data necessary to measure the Targets for Goal 16 is available. I’d say the GPI’s  findings can probably be extended to the other goals, so we’ll imagine for the sake of argument that we can measure 50-60% of the 169 Targets across all the SDGs with the data currently available globally. How will we get the other 40-50%? To deal with these questions it’s important to know who collects data: The primary answer is of course national statistics offices. These are the entities tasked by governments with managing statistics across a country’s ministries and agencies, as well as doing population censuses. Other data organizations include international institutions and polling firms. NGOs and academic institutes gather data too, but I’d argue that the scale of the SDGs means that governments, international organizations and big polling firms are going to carry the primary load. Knowing the Who, we can now get to the How.

National statistics offices (NSOs) should be the place where all data that will be used for demonstrating a nation’s progress toward goals is gathered and reported. In a perfect world NSOs would have necessary resources for collecting data, and the flexibility to run new surveys using innovative technologies to meet the rapidly evolving data needs of public policy. This is of course not how NSOs work. Much of what happens in a statistics office is less about gathering new data, and more about making sure what exists is accessible. In my experience NSOs have a core budget for census taking, but if new data has to be collected the funding comes from another government office. This last bit is important: NSOs do not generally have the authority to go get whatever data is necessary. If NSOs are going to be the primary source for data that will be used to measure the SDGs, it is critical that legislatures provide funding to government offices for data gathering.

International organizations are the next place we might look to for data. The World Bank, in my opinion, is the gold standard for international data. United Nations agencies also collect a fair amount of data. What sets the Bank apart is that they do some of their own data collection. Most international organizations’ data though is actually just NSO data from member states. For example, when you go to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime’s database, most of what you’ll find are statistics that were voluntarily reported by member states’ statistical offices. The UN, World Bank, OECD and other myriad organizations do relatively little of their own data gathering; much of their effort is spent making sure that the data they are given is accessible. Unless legislatures in member states provide funding to government agencies to gather data, and the government agrees to share the data with international organizations, most international institutions won’t have much new data.

Polling firms such as Gallup gather international survey data that is both timely, accurate and covers a wide range of topics relevant to the SDGs. Unfortunately their data is expensive to access. As a for-profit entity they have a level of flexibility to gather new data  that statistics offices don’t, but this level of flexibility is very expensive to maintain. A problem arises too when Gallup (and similar firms) decide that the data necessary to measure the SDGs is not commercially viable to gather and sell access to. In this case legislatures would need to provide funding to government agencies to hire Gallup to gather data that is relevant to measuring progress toward the SDGs.

There is a pattern in the preceding paragraphs. All of them end with the legislature or representative body of government having to provide funding for data gathering. How we gather data (the funding, budgeting, administration, and authority) is entirely political. This is a key issue that gets lost in a lot of discussion around ‘open data’ and demands for data-driven policy making. It is too easy to fall into a trap where data gets treated as a neutral, values-free thing, existing in a plane outside the messy politics of public administration. The Global Peace Index does a good service by highlighting where there are serious gaps in the necessary data for tracking the SDG Targets. This leads us to the political question of financing data collection.

If the UN and the various stakeholders who developed the Sustainable Development Goals can’t make the case to legislatures and parliaments that investments in data gathering and statistical capacity are politically worthwhile, it is entirely likely that the SDGs will go unmeasured and we’ll be back around a table in 2030 hacking away at the same development challenges while missing the harder conversation about the politics necessary to drive sustainable change.

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One thought on “How Is Public Data Produced?

  1. Pingback: How is Public Data Produced (Part 2) | Charles Martin-Shields

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