The Center for Data Innovation spoke with Geoffrey Greenwell, Technical Program Coordinator of the Partnership in Statistics for Development in the 21st Century (PARIS21), an international organization working to promote better use and production of statistics in the developing world. Greenwell discussed the value of statistics for advancing and monitoring international development targets, the role of non-official data sources, and the future of a data revolution for international development.
Alexander Kostura: Could you explain the role of statistics in development and the goals of PARIS21?
Geoffrey Greenwell: The role of statistics for development is growing. Data for informing the policy process is more relevant today than ever. PARIS21 was established as a partnership in statistics for development in 1999 primarily to support the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) process. Now with the close of the MDGs, monitoring the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is vital, and PARIS21 is helping countries transition into the new environment. Helping National Statistical Offices (NSOs) adapt to the changing data ecosystem remains high on the agenda for PARIS21. This is done primarily through the development of National Strategies for the Development of Statistics (NSDS) which formalizes the way a country approaches official statistics by strategically working through the official organs within a national statistical system. Most often, the NSOs are mandated by law to coordinate the national statistical system. In reality the ability for a country to coordinate this process depends upon strong leadership and capacity.
Kostura: In your role at PARIS21, you work with the Accelerated Data Program, an initiative started in 2006 to increase the use and value of survey data for governments in low-income countries. What kind of insights can survey data reveal that makes it so important for these countries?
Greenwell: When a country commits to a development plan, the effectiveness of that plan requires some kind of indicator to measure whether the objectives of the plan are being realized. These indicators are designed to be quantifiable phenomena that can be tracked over time and help inform policymakers and development partners on the status of development programs reaching targeted populations. The only way to objectively measure this progress is through a systematic and replicable data collection exercise. Surveys are the most common instrument used to collect these data and process responses to indicative questions. Survey data can reveal improvements in well-being and also assess such things as health outcomes or improvements in educational attainment.
Kostura: As you noted, prior to 2015, the PARIS21 agenda focused on supporting progress toward the United Nations’ MDGs, and the UN has since replaced these with the SDGs, which are more comprehensive and set more ambitious targets for the next 15 years. How has PARIS21 adapted to support these new goals? And do new development targets mean different data priorities?
Greenwell: It is funny that you should ask about how PARIS21 has “adapted” to the SDGs or the Agenda 2030. In fact, we have developed a tool called the Advanced Data Planning Tool or ADAPT. The tool is being piloted and implemented in 5 countries and it is designed to identify gaps in the data record. Many of the SDGs have not been monitored and there is uncertainty as to how the 230 indicators will be reported. ADAPT will help countries in the process of consulting agencies in the statistical system and undertaking inventories of data availability and capacity to compute the indicators. One particular indicator, Indicator 17.18.3, suggests that the SDGs should come from data in the country. We aim to help countries respond to this challenge. While ADAPT will help in the process, there will need to be targeted investments and thoughtful approaches to reporting on the indicators. There will be a strong role for regional organizations to also help in regional comparability and harmonization.
Kostura: What do you think is the greatest unrealized opportunity for the data revolution and international development outcomes?
Greenwell: The “Informing a Data Revolution” project was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The project developed a road map document that provided a developing country perspective and readiness for a data revolution. In my view, probably the greatest unrealized opportunity of the data revolution is really incubating the ability of country-based research organizations, civil society and data entrepreneurs to access data and develop country-specific solutions using easily available technology. There is sufficient know-how and creative talent in countries to develop their solutions. Incubating these efforts and investing in local talent to use data and develop market driven solutions as interpreted by country agents is fundamental. These efforts need to be encouraged and cultivated in a culture of free flowing information. There is a great deal of dynamism that is out there, and opportunities need to be provided for people to determine what is best for them. Data can help that outcome.
Another important area to develop is data coming from sector administrative systems. For example, a well administered health system means managing information not for the sake of data but for the sake of providing a necessary and high quality service. These data are essentially free and the result of a conscious effort to deliver services in areas such as health and education. These data form an integral part of the data ecosystem and similarly are part of the data revolution. But what is interesting is that this data is not for data sake but investments in services.
Kostura: PARIS21 has investigated the use of non-official sources of data, like telecom data and social media, to fill gaps in official statistics. What can non-official data do for measuring and monitoring development goals that official data cannot? And are there challenges associated with this non-traditional data when it comes to official statistics?
Greenwell: I have been involved in data for development for some time, you could say even as a Peace Corps Volunteer in former Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I remember surveying water sources and writing these down in a notebook and scrawling where they were located. These were very isolated locations. We had no mobile phones. Just a motorcycle, a bright yellow bell helmet, a pen and paper and a compass. No GPS. Part of my work was to catalogue the locations of the clean water springs and then return to build cement spring boxes to protect them from contamination brought in through erosion. Today, those locations can all be geospatially located and mapped in an instant. This information is indispensable for cities to develop their public services. The opportunity to make data or information truly relevant in real time to community and civil society is probably the greatest development. These data can be unofficial data and they are not always associated with a traditional urban water service. They are not substitutes but they complement official data because with mobile data comes real time non-probabilistic information that can be used quickly to help improve lives. Official statistics provide a broader measure of central tendency for helping policy makers; unofficial statistics puts data into the hands of creative people and these are finding solutions to real time problems. Both are necessary and not exclusive. There is no question in my mind that data for development has turned a corner and the notions of international development and assistance have changed. We are seeing the last of the aid generation—the generation that thought international aid and donor assistance were an inevitable long term political and economic reality.