Explainer: The challenges of measuring cities’ progress on the Sustainable Development Goals

(Who is Danny/Shutterstock.com)

Cities have a huge role to play in achieving the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs. Intended to coordinate development efforts globally through 2030, the goals are aimed at alleviating poverty, protecting natural resources and reducing inequality. Every one of the 17 SDGs has something to do with work happening at the city level. One of them — Goal 11 — specifically aims to build cities that are “inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”.

It’s an ambitious undertaking. But how will progress be measured so that leaders of city, regional and national governments, NGOs, development banks, businesses and philanthropies know if their efforts are moving in the right direction? There are significant challenges ahead in terms of collecting data that all these stakeholders will find useful. There’s also significant opportunities to do it using new technologies and new partnerships that have never been leveraged.

Here’s an overview of some of the major questions and issues.

What data needs come with the SDGs?

From a cities perspective, the SDGs will require rigorous data collection and analysis on almost all components of urban living — population, access to public transport and adequate housing, sanitation, public space and much more.

The United Nations has devised a framework for monitoring the SDGs. Each of the 17 goals has been broken down into a set of targets. Progress on those targets will be measured by “indicators” — specific metrics related to those targets.

For example, SDG 11 — the one focused entirely on cities — is made up of 10 targets, with 15 proposed indicators. One of those targets is to “ensure access for all to adequate, safe and affordable housing and basic services and upgrade slums” by 2030. The indicator used to measure progress on that aim is the proportion of urban population living in slums, informal settlements or inadequate housing.

While a full menu of SDG indicators has been proposed at the global level, they remain a work in progress overseen by a technical group called the Inter-Agency Expert Group on SDG Indicators. Further, the SDG framework has been set up in order to explicitly urge national governments to adopt locally feasible indicators wherever possible.

Does all this information exist?

In some cases yes but in many cases no. Unfortunately, there are still huge data gaps when it comes to measuring progress on sustainable development, particularly in cities of the developing world.

In many cases, basic information is simply unavailable. For example, as many as 100 countries, mostly in the Global South, do not yet keep accurate record of births and deaths. Likewise, there is a gap when it comes to data on access to adequate housing, which has not been collected in “a rigorous manner across countries” over the past 20 years, according to the Global Urban Futures Project.

On top of that, official data on informal settlements — such as accurate population numbers, access to services and settlement boundaries — is often lacking in detail or not available.

Finally, the SDGs include many areas in which governments have never previously attempted to keep accurate data — around public space, for instance. While this is a particular issue for developing countries, it remains an obstacle in richer countries as well. In part, that is what has excited supporters of this new framework, but it also has slowed down global agreement on how to measure several aspects of urban development.

Regardless of what information exists now, countries will be expected to report on steps and progress they’re making on all aspects of the SDGs on a regular basis. That formal mechanism, which takes place yearly in July, is called the High-Level Political Forum. In 2018, the HLPF will focus in particular on Goal 11 and urban development.

Are there data challenges specifically related to cities?

Much of the work on development data globally is based on national sample surveys. That often makes it difficult to zoom in on indicators that are more specific to cities or metropolitan areas. For example, in many countries it can be hard to find city-level data to measure the proportion of population below the international poverty line, access to electricity or the proportion of urban population living in slums.

The technical term for this is disaggregation — and within the SDGs framework, the problem is not limited to cities. There are similar challenges around breaking down national-level data around dimensions such as age, sex, income, race, migratory status and disability. Without properly disaggregated data the SDGs’ noble aim of leaving “no one behind” will be untenable.

As yet, however, this is a contentious and unresolved topic at the U. N. level, where national governments have tended to focus on data-gathering through a national lens. Even once national officials do start to look more closely at disaggregating their metrics to cities, that will only lay bare the glaring problem of data capacity at the city level.

Why is data so important?

Without accurate, reliable data, leaders at all levels won’t be able to measure their progress (or lack thereof) on sustainable urban development. And neither will civil society, researchers, citizens and others who want to hold their governments to account.

Second, sound data is needed to make good decisions. When national leaders are presented with questions about where to allocate funding, resources and infrastructure, good data on where the greatest needs are in cities can help point to the answers.

Better data benefits city leaders, as well. It gives them the knowledge they need to manage services more efficiently and equitably. Further, the private sector is more likely to invest in cities that have a data-driven and transparent understanding of their strengths and weaknesses, and where they are working to improve.

What’s happening to plug these data gaps?

Building capacity is part of the answer. In January 2017, the U. N. convened the first ever World Data Forum, in Cape Town, South Africa. At that summit, governments pledged to improve statistical systems at the national and local levels to enhance data capacity.

This plan asks governments to commit to innovating and modernizing national statistical systems and bolstering infrastructure and capacity to support statistical requirements at all levels of government. It also asks countries to increase their dissemination of data on sustainable development and to build partnerships for improved data in this area.

In addition, the U. N. has called for a “data revolution” to transform data collection and analysis around the world. The idea places particular importance on the rapid development of technology and data-gathering tools, such as mobile phones and sensors that monitor things like air quality and traffic.

Framers of this “revolution” say it poses an opportunity to combine new and traditional types of data to produce better, more detailed and relevant knowledge to monitor what is happening on the ground, including in cities.

At the same time, many are hoping this new approach will lead to more sharing of data, with moves toward making information on public matters and public funding more open and accessible — while not invading people’s privacy.

What are some of the key data tools available to officials, researchers and others interested in sustainable development?

Some of the new tools look first to identify the size and extent of the world’s urban areas. For example, the European Commission’s Global Human Settlement Layer, which was released at Habitat III, uses satellite and census data to provide worldwide information on population density and built-up areas over the past 40 years. Whether looking at Lagos or Paris, this tool gives researchers and policymakers a picture of how urban areas have developed and grown over time.

Others are wide-ranging, with the aim of pulling together multiple actors in the data for development space. There is, for example, the Global Partnership on Sustainable Development Data, a network of governments, businesses and NGOs working to plug data gaps and build capacity. The network has spawned initiatives to create online dashboards for countries to measure progress on the SDGs. There are also more thematically based efforts, such as Data2X, which is working to improve the collection and use of data related to gender.

In the realm of tracking governance issues, the Governance Data Alliance provides various measures related to open governance, rule of law, corruption and transparency related to public spending at the national level.

Are there tools that cater specifically to city officials?

Some key initiatives are seeking to help officials create and work with standardized city data. The goal is to enable cities to look at their progress against that of other cities, comparing “apples to apples” when it comes to different dimensions of sustainable development.

A major player here is the ISO 37210 standard, a bona fide global standard for measuring city performance issued in 2014 by the International Organization for Standardization, the global body that approves standards for products, processes and services.

ISO 37210 uses a set of 100 indicators to gauge social, environmental and economic urban performance. This data is independently verified, and a body called the World Council on City Data issues different levels of certification, running from “aspirational” to “platinum” based on how many indicators cities report on. The WCCD maintains an open data portal with information about participating cities and their sustainability efforts.

Another tool comes from UN-Habitat, the agency that focuses on human settlements. It’s called the City Prosperity Initiative, and it’s been in operation since 2012. This measures the state of urban development in cities, based on six dimensions: productivity, infrastructure, quality of life, equity and social inclusion, environmental sustainability and governance.

Cities that adopt the City Prosperity Initiative can, with assistance from UN-Habitat, build up their own mechanisms for monitoring urban development, starting to gather the data that is essential for measuring progress on the SDGs or other such frameworks. The initiative has been applied in over 400 cities — in Latin America, Egypt, Ethiopia, Vietnam and Saudi Arabia, according to UN-Habitat.

UN-Habitat also has an open urban data portal, which provides and visualizes data on cities related to slums, transport, street densities and other metrics.

What about citizen-generated data?

It’s unlikely that official statistical bodies will be able to keep up with all the data collection needs. Some of the effort is likely to come from citizens themselves.

Many citizen-generated data efforts are aimed at sparking government action. This could involve, for instance, people locating and photographing dysfunctional water systems or toilets in their neighbourhoods, and then uploading pictures and details to a website or mobile platform to pressure local authorities to take action.

The use of citizen-generated data has found particular traction in informal settlements, where accurate official data is lacking. Enhanced understanding of slum conditions is incredibly important, not least because an estimated quarter of the world’s urban population lives in slums or informal settlements, according to the United Nations.

Who’s leading the charge on citizen-generated data?

The key actor in filling data gaps when it comes to informal settlements around the world is Shack/Slum Dwellers International (SDI), an umbrella group of federations of the urban poor from 32 countries in the developing world.

Through its ‘Know Your City’ initiative, a collaboration with the United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) Africa branch, SDI provides open data on informal settlements, collected by people living in these areas. This includes data on population sizes, sanitation, access to water, services and health facilities, among other things. The campaign has profiled more than 7,700 informal settlements in 224 cities, according to SDI.

DataShift, a collaboration between Civicus: World Alliance for Citizen Participation and partner organizations, also is doing important work around building capacity with civil society organizations to enable them to use citizen-generated data in their advocacy efforts.

What does all this mean for city officials?

As the “data revolution” gathers pace and the global community works to fulfil the “leave no one behind” mandate, city officials will need to find creative and practical ways to improve urban data capacity.

This will require resources — money and people. It also will require partnerships with national governments, the numerous data initiatives that are already up and running, research organizations, civil-society groups, the private sector and, importantly, the citizens that governments are supposed to serve.

To do so in a cost-effective way will involve prioritizing problem areas and also looking at ways to adapt current data-gathering practices to incorporate the new data needs laid out in the SDGs.

Failing to capitalize on the data revolution and ignoring the call for improved, accurate, timely, disaggregated data will mean that cities won’t be able to manage to meet the formidable targets set by the these new international frameworks — or respond adequately to their citizens’ needs.

Back to top

More from Citiscope

Latest Commentary

Brendon Bosworth is a correspondent for Citiscope based in Cape Town. Full bio

Get Citiscope’s email newsletter on local solutions to global goals.