Do countries rely on wrong data to make decisions?

Delegates follow a presentation during the conference in Kigali yesterday. / Courtesy

Countries across the world are currently working to achieve Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a blueprint to achieve a more sustainable future for the people.

This means addressing challenges related to poverty, climate change, inequality, environmental degradation, and injustice, among other challenges.

Yet, many countries lack up-to-date and precise data to inform actions being taken by countries, experts say.

According to the United Nations, this means countries do not know exactly how many children need vaccinations, how many people need emergency food assistance, or how to prevent deforestation and biodiversity loss.

Maryam Rabiee, a Manager at the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network’s data arm, TReNDS, argues that to achieve the SDGs, there is a need for timely data that represents everyone in the world.

“We don’t have enough frequent data to measure the SDGs. A lot of data that is measuring data, for instance, dates back to 2015. What we need right now is the production of frequent data so that we can measure and monitor the SDGs,” she says.

The Chief Executive Officer at the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development, Claire Melamed, shares similar sentiments, saying that there is an urgent need for data to inform decisions countries are taking towards addressing global problems.

“There has been a sense, over many years, that the quality of data in many countries is very poor and that is having an impact on effective policymaking. What’s changed is the sense that there are now more possibilities and we can do something about it,” she says.

While Melamed believes the poor quality of data across countries is not new, the urgency to bring about the right solutions is important to accelerate the implementation of the global goals.

In September, the United Nations launched an initiative dubbed ‘Data for Now’ which sought to facilitate member countries of the national statistical systems to collaborate more effectively.

That initiative is being championed by the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network’s Thematic Research Network on Data and Statistics (TReNDS), the World Bank, the UN Statistics Division, and the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data (GPSDD).

Currently, it is being piloted in eight countries, including Rwanda, Nepal, Mongolia, Senegal, Bangladesh, Columbia, and Paraguay.

This week, Rwanda hosted the first workshop which brought together stakeholders to help countries to identify national priority data gaps.

According to Rabiee, identified gaps would be linked to solutions providers to enable them address those challenges.

In that way, they believe countries can make a positive difference in people’s lives through the ability to deliver better, more timely data to inform policy and decision making for the 2030 Agenda.

At the moment, however, countries like Rwanda admit there are challenges that need to be addressed to improve the availability of timely, high-quality data for sustainable development.

Ruben Muhayiteto, a Manager at the National Institute of Statistics of Rwanda’s training centre and Data Science Campus, says Rwanda has made progress in the development of statistics evidenced by consistency in the production of data and improvement in the scope of data recapture.

“However, there are challenges related to having real-time data which has to monitor the SDGs,” he says, adding the country has been relying heavily on censuses as traditional sources of data.

Muhayiteto highlights that the statistics institute is enhancing administrative data sources which provide real-time data.

Rwanda also seeks to adopt alternative innovative approaches to data production.

Leveraging big data – an emerging technology field that describes new ways of systematic extraction of large data sets and analysis to inform outstanding decision making – is one of the ways through which new approaches can be devised to address data gaps.

Melamed believes recent advances in technology offers the ability to fill the existing data gaps.

“There is a realization that new technologies can provide us with more avenues not just to understand the challenges but also to address them,” she notes, adding that presently there is a critical mass of methods and innovations.

In a country like Paraguay, the government is making reforms to give independency to statistics organisations, according to Iván Mauricio Ojeda Aguilera, the Director-General of the country’s national statistics institute.

“We are in a crucial period where we are passing reforms, one of which is a new statistics law to give full independence to the statistics body. That is important as we talk about bridging data gaps to address global challenges,” he notes.

Today, more governments and institutions understand the importance of data and are demanding access to new tools and methods.

Investors are also recognising the value and the return on investing in data systems and capacity building.

editor@newtimesrwanda.com