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Are the global goals doomed to fail without better open data?

by Isabelle Gerretsen | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 24 May 2018 17:26 GMT

Employees work at their desks at Mediatrac, a data analytics start up company in Jakarta, Indonesia, April 13, 2016. REUTERS/Darren Whiteside

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Lack of data is hindering progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals

More than half a billion children worldwide live in countries that cannot properly measure progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals, the U.N. children’s agency (UNICEF)  said in March.

A lack of open data in developing countries is hindering progress towards the globally agreed goals – which aim to end poverty and hunger, among other things - speakers told a live Zilient discussion on the topic, moderated by Joyce Coffee, president of Climate Resilient Consulting.

For example, open data that can be used to track gender-based violence - which falls under Goal 5 - is extremely limited in developing countries, said Aniket Bhushan, lead analyst and principal investigator with the Canadian International Development Platform (CIDP).

In some 15 percent of sub-Saharan African countries, accurate data about demographics and birth rates do not exist, Bhushan said.

Fernando Perini, senior programme specialist at Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC), agreed there are “gigantic gaps” in Africa, but noted that Latin America, by contrast, has a strong open data community.

An additional complication is that most open data is not validated and can often be “skewed” in the developing world, Bhushan said. In Kenya, for instance, there is an incentive to over-report or under-report statistics because aid and other payments are tied to numbers on things like school enrolment and exam pass rates, he noted.


Besides struggling to produce relevant and accurate data, governments are feeling the strain when it comes to tracking the progress of the global goals.

The huge amount of indicators for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) - 232 in total - has placed serious pressure on national statistical systems, according to Perini. Even developed countries are unable to measure the SDGs well, he said.

Of the full set of indicators, 88 are not backed up by available data or a suitable method to gather it, and 55 have some form of method but no data, Bhushan said.

Many of them are “bordering on the realm of the unmeasurable”, he added.

Others use misleading calculation methods, he said, citing one indicator that measures energy efficiency by dividing a country’s net energy supply by its GDP.

Using this method, Iceland - a country with a sustainable economy driven by renewable energy - is hugely inefficient compared with Canada, a major crude oil producer.

The challenges surrounding open data mean it is unlikely the SDGs will be met by 2030, warned Thomas Bjelkeman-Pettersson, chief technical officer and co-founder of Akvo, a software developer that operates data collection systems for international development.

“We don’t have the data to tell us what [the situation] is like today and what it will be like tomorrow,” he said.

“Internationally we’re underfunding data [tracking of the SDGs] by $300 million-$400 million each year,” he added, calling for investment to be stepped up significantly to meet the global goals.


Despite the obstacles, open data can be leveraged to help achieve the SDGs if governments work closely with data users and harness cutting-edge technologies such as Blockchain, the panellists said.

Governments and civil society not only need tools to gather data, but also an understanding of how to interpret it, Bjelkeman-Pettersson said. There is a huge demand for knowledge on how to analyse open data, he added.

The gap, he suggested, could be bridged by Blockchain, a digital shared record of transactions maintained by a network of computers on the internet, without the need for a centralised authority.

Blockchain could be used to reveal each step in the data chain, from aggregation through to interpretation and implementation, Bjelkeman-Pettersson explained.

It could help individuals and businesses track money through the value chain, showing how it passes from governments to contractors, Perini said.

Bhushan said Blockchain could also help resolve the validation issue surrounding open data.

An open ledger could provide instantaneous data on development for the public to compare and analyse, he said, cutting out the need for a platform such as the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) which tracks how aid money is spent worldwide, and promoting greater transparency and accountability.

To achieve maximum impact, open data should break out of the constraints of the public sector and filter into civil society, Bhushan argued, citing checkmyschool.org as an example of a data-gathering initiative that relies on contributions from citizens. The monitoring programme encourages parents to submit verified information about school provisions in the Philippines.

Governments and citizens working together on data aggregation can produce good results, said Bjelkeman-Pettersson, pointing to OpenStreetMap as a “huge community effort to map the world”.

“We should spend more effort on collaboration,” he said.

The Thomson Reuters Foundation is reporting on resilience as part of its work on zilient.org, an online platform building a global network of people interested in resilience, in partnership with The Rockefeller Foundation.

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