Home PublicationsCommentary Governments Should Use Non-Traditional Data to Track and Meet Sustainable Development Goals

Governments Should Use Non-Traditional Data to Track and Meet Sustainable Development Goals

by Michael McLaughlin
City buildings and cars driving on a highway.

Governments around the world are striving to meet the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) the United Nations announced in 2015. The goals, which apply to every country in the world, range from eradicating poverty to increasing health and wellness to ensuring access to quality education for all people. Some governments, such as India, have even announced more ambitious goals, such as eradicating tuberculosis by 2025 instead of 2030.

But for many governments, it is a struggle to measure their progress towards meeting the goals. One reason is that traditional data sources, such as government surveys, are often insufficient to measure progress. For example, in Ghana, the government conducts some surveys every five years to acquire data. This infrequent collection means that some data quickly becomes out-of-date. Moreover, many governments lack the systems to measure some of the more than 200 SDG indicators, such as the proportion of children meeting minimum proficiency levels in reading. Tracking these indicators is necessary to measure progress towards the overall goals.

To overcome these challenges, governments should partner with private companies that have access to nontraditional data sources to better track their progress and help meet the goals. Nontraditional sources of data include payment data from smartphones, traffic data from apps such as Waze, and biometric data from wearable devices. Moreover, unlike traditional sources of data, such as a census, nontraditional data sources can provide real-time information, allowing governments to make better and more timely decisions. For example, the City of Chicago is placing hundreds of sensors around the city, allowing it to measure continually its air quality and noise pollution.

There is already evidence of how private firms can successfully contribute and use data to help nations track and meet the SDGs. For example, Telefónica Brazil, a Brazilian telecommunications firm, is providing mobile network data to the local municipalities of São Paulo to help the city respond to pollution. São Paulo has a limited number of traffic sensors, but the mobile network data is a reliable indicator of traffic and congestion patterns in the city, and in combination with weather and pollution data, enables the city to guide traffic to alternate routes to reduce pollution and provide early health warnings up to 48 hours in advance when pollution levels will likely be high.

In addition, Airtel, an Indian telecommunications firm, has worked with several partners, including the World Health Organization, to use mobile network data to predict areas in India that are at risk of increased levels of tuberculosis (TB). The bacteria that causes TB spreads through coughing and sneezing and Airtel’s aggregated mobile network data can show where populations that live in areas with low TB incidence travel to areas with high TB incidence frequently. This information makes it possible for targeted interventions and can alert local health care providers that there may be an underreporting of TB cases in their area.

However, for governments to gain access to such data from private firms, they need to demonstrate they can use the data responsibly and to the public’s benefit, so that it is worth the risk for private firms to share—a government partner misusing or leaking a firm’s data can be detrimental to the firm’s reputation. This means governments at all levels need to increase their ability and willingness to use data that may lack a clear structure or adhere to unconventional collection methodologies. As such, national and regional governments should coordinate closely with local governments, who are often the parties implementing the solutions, to standardize data collection methodologies and create consistent regulatory frameworks that enable data sharing rather than hinder it. According to the GSMA, a trade body that represents more than 1,000 mobile operators and companies worldwide, some of its organizations have been unable to share data with governments because of data protection laws.

Just as achieving the SDGs will require cooperation between the government and private sector, measuring progress against the SDGs should not be left to government alone. By working together, the public and private sectors can enhance sustainable development in their country.

Image: The Photographer

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