For first time, governments pledge to bolster data systems at all levels

The first U.N. World Global Data Forum took place 15-18 January in Cape Town. (Svetlana Shmeleva/Shutterstock)

CAPE TOWN, South Africa — As the world starts to tackle the hefty task of meeting new development goals, governments have pledged to bolster statistical systems at all levels, including in cities.

Particular urgency is being felt around the new Sustainable Development Goals, an overarching framework that will guide global anti-poverty and sustainability efforts through 2030. Those 17 goals came into effect last year, and officials seeking to implement the wide-ranging agenda have been finding that data constitutes a key gap in their ability to deliver.

“The 2030 Agenda poses enormous challenges for the global statistical community to modernize and improve our capacity, so that national statistical efforts and their offices can provide the necessary data to inform policies and monitor progress,” Wu Hongbo, a top U. N. official, said this week at the first United Nations World Data Forum, which brought over 1400 delegates to Cape Town.

Major data gaps remain, Wu warned. He noted, for instance, that around 100 countries, most of them in the Global South, do not yet keep accurate record even of births and deaths. Lacking that type of basic information will make it almost impossible to tailor new development initiatives to respond to realities on the ground — to strengthen what is working and change what is not.

The forum culminated with the release of the Cape Town Global Action Plan for Sustainable Development. The eight-page document calls for an international commitment to modernizing national statistical systems and to place “particular focus on building the infrastructure and the capacity needed to support local, national, regional and global statistical requirements.”

The action plan also pledges countries to increase the dissemination of data on sustainable development and to build partnerships, among other things. The U. N. Statistical Commission is slated to adopt the framework at its annual meeting in March.

It is significant that the forum was the first time that the global community has gathered for such a major event on data for sustainable development, underscoring how officials at all level are struggling with the ongoing explosion in data availability — and how best to use that to guide policymaking.

[See: Data capacity looms over implementation of urban development goals]

While the inaugural data forum focused largely on national efforts at data production and collection, it also recognized that cities will play a core role in tracking progress on global development efforts. That’s not only because one of the 17 SDGs, Goal 11, looks specifically at creating sustainable cities. Rather, participants at the forum noted that the rising cities focus constitutes a sea change in itself.

“For the first time, we are looking at making cities and human settlements safer,” said Robert Ndugwa, head of the Global Urban Observatory Unit at UN-Habitat, the U. N.’s lead agency on urbanization. “The focus here is on the city. It’s very different from the rural or urban dimensions we’ve been dealing with in the past.”

Defining the city

The introduction of this city focus in the global development framework has been bolstered by October’s adoption of the New Urban Agenda, which offers guidance on implementing the SDGs in cities. Likewise, the new Paris Agreement on climate change, which came into effect in November, places unique emphasis on action by local authorities.

“As countries are urbanizing rapidly, it is cities that are going to feed this national data when you’re talking about SDG reporting, or evidence-based decision-making at the national level.”

James Patava
World Council on City Data

This new priority on cities has brought its own set of challenges, however. In particular, Ndugwa said, policymakers and practitioners are continually finding a need for new types of data. They’re even running into problems with regard to how exactly to define a city or human settlement. After all, defining where city boundaries lie will inevitably impact on measurement efforts, especially if authorities are looking to make city-to-city comparisons.

Much of the discussion on monitoring progress on the SDGs comes down to an ongoing process to define specific metrics, referred to as indicators. There are currently 240 of these metrics that have been agreed upon by a group called the Inter-agency and Expert Group on SDG Indicators (IAEG), which is overseeing the process of refining these data points.

[See: Can we actually agree on indicators to measure urban development?]

Many of those indicators — for instance, access to public transport, air quality, population or land-use change — are incredibly sensitive to where a city’s exact boundary is defined, said Lewis Dijkstra, with the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Regional and Urban policy. “Without a harmonized version of [a city], you can monitor change over time in your city, but it’s basically impossible to compare your levels with levels in a different city,” he said.

Further compounding concerns around city-to-city comparisons is the fact that the SDG indicators currently do not require national statistical offices to disaggregate their findings down to the city level — including with regard to Goal 11. While this issue (and other disaggregation concerns) has been the focus of significant debate, including at the IAEG, as yet it remains unresolved.

The complexity of measuring progress on the urban goal is reflected by the fact that almost half of the global indicators listed for SDG 11 are ranked as “Tier III”, according to a December report. This finding is a worrying one: The Tier III classification means that there is no established methodology or standard by which to measure the indicator. At the very least, it means that such methodologies are still under development.

“There are a lot of gaps and a lot of work being done in terms of trying to identify innovative tools,” said Francesca Perucci, assistant director of the U. N. Statistics Division. “Being cities, these are somehow data that are not entirely part of the official national statistical system.”

[See: Cities respond: Testing the urban SDG indicators]

Among the indicators for the urban goal that rank as Tier III, for example, is one related to public space — an issue that has never before received attention in top global policymaking circles. That indicator seeks to measure the “average share of the built-up area of cities that is open space for public use for all, by sex, age and persons with disabilities.”

This would be tough to measure, however, since the amount of public space in a city changes relatively slowly and it is difficult to identify spaces that are really open to the public, said Dijkstra. It could be more effective to look at the share of a population living in an area with insufficient open space, he suggested.

“If you look at the list of indicators, there are some which could be done, some which are aspirational, and others which are clearly more qualitative in nature,” he said.

Troublesome indicators could be revised in 2020 and again in 2025. For now, the U. N. Statistical Commission will meet in March to take into account the IAEG’s latest proposals. As it stands, 35 percent of all indicators are classified as Tier III.

The IAEG “discussed this and said, ‘Well, 2020 is the first time we’ll do a comprehensive review, and if Tier III is still Tier III, we seriously have to think about if we’re [going] in the right direction,” said Perucci. “Some of those indicators are almost there, and some are still very much sort of in the dark.”

City-to-city comparisons

Yet even as the process to refine international indicators continues to chug along, there already are tools available to help decision-makers make sense of what’s happening in their cities, and to make city-to-city comparisons. Proponents say these offer a readymade way to start gauging progress on the SDGs, too.

“There are a lot of gaps and a lot of work being done in terms of trying to identify innovative tools. Being cities, these are somehow data that are not entirely part of the official national statistical system.”

Francesca Perucci
Assistant Director, U. N. Statistics Division

UN-Habitat continues work on its City Prosperity Initiative, for instance. This tool uses a set of commonly available indicators for monitoring urban sustainability and allows for city-to-city comparisons. It is being used in the South American cities of Fortaleza, Limo, Quito and Panama City, as well as by the São Paulo Metropolitan Planning Agency to monitor sustainable development of the 39 municipalities in that region, according to UN-Habitat. It has been used in more than 400 cities around the world.

[See: Two models for tracking implementation of the New Urban Agenda]

Another existing tool is the World Council on City Data’s ISO 37120, an international standard for sustainable cities that allows cities to measure performance on services and quality of life. Cities taking part include Johannesburg, London, Buenos Aires, Rotterdam and Amsterdam.

Standardizing city data in this way can be very useful, decision-makers say. If cities across a country collect data using different methodologies, this results in “comparing apples to pears to lemons to pineapples to whatever,” said Robert Hermans with Statistics Netherlands, which has partnered with the World Council on City Data to certify more cities in the Netherlands. Producing data according the indicators of the ISO 37120 standard, meanwhile, allows for better comparisons across levels of government and internationally, he said.

The idea is that the urban data from these tools can feed into national discussions and efforts to monitor progress on the SDGs.

“As countries are urbanizing rapidly, it is cities that are going to feed this national data when you’re talking about SDG reporting, or evidence-based decision-making at the national level,” said James Patava, director of communications for the World Council on City Data. “When you’re talking about things like poverty, homelessness, infrastructure — city-level data is absolutely essential to be reporting at an international level.”

[See: Community-generated data crucial for implementing New Urban Agenda]

And to help mayors make city-to-city comparisons, the European Commission and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) have developed a “harmonized city definition,” which is used in the European Union and OECD countries. It is now being revised for potential use in other countries.

As governments, national and local, begin to ramp up their data production and monitoring efforts, there is clearly going to be a need for increased capacity — a point experts at the World Data Forum stressed repeatedly.

“We often talk about the data revolution. What we need to put next to it is a capacity revolution,” said Johannes Jütting, manager of the Partnership in Statistics for Development in the 21st Century, a project hosted by the OECD. “The Sustainable Development Goals are a real game-changer, and require a change of how we look at the capacities and skill sets that are needed to make a difference for people.”

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

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