When the United Nations met in New York City last month, it agreed to nothing less than the end of extreme poverty by 2030. Also the eradication of AIDS, the elimination of sex trafficking and proper nutrition for everybody in the world — to name a few.
And so, in the face of daunting demands, a massive global network of organizations both public and private has convened with the goal of making it happen — through data.
The Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data, formed at the end of September, already consists of more than 70 organizations. They include national governments, massive private corporations like MasterCard and IBM, and international groups like the United Nations Children’s Fund and the Gavi vaccine alliance.
Part of the idea behind the alliance is to make sure that the world can track progress on the far-reaching and at times nebulous goals. But Mat Small, executive and communications lead for the global public services division of the software company SAP, said data can do much more for the sustainable development goals than just measure.
“I actually use the word ‘enablement’ over ‘support,’ because the data is going to be so actionable … and delivered with such precision that it’s actually going to [aid] in the progress of how we achieve the goals,” Small said.
That is to say, data — the mining of it, the access to it and the analysis of it — can actually become part of the strategy in achieving the goals, he said. For example, some of the goals involve opening up access to education and increasing health-care services. But in a place like Kenya, where UNICEF reports that the births of about 40 percent of children go unrecorded, how does the government know where to focus education and health-care efforts?
“It’s difficult for a country to deliver services to a citizen if they don’t know they’re there,” Small said.
For SAP, the answer was to streamline the process. Using its data platform HANA, SAP developed an application meant to make birth registration as easy as possible. The app, available on smartphones, is connected to a cloud that government workers who are responsible for recording births can access.
That’s a small slice of what data can be used for when it comes to achieving the sustainable development goals. SAP has also worked with Buenos Aires to create a data network of sensors that can tell it, among other things, which sewer drains are blocked. So when Argentina was hit with floods last year, the city of Buenos Aires used the sensor array to better manage water flow, reducing the impacts of flooding.
It continues: As an Ebola outbreak spread through West Africa, people working to fight the disease’s movement used data to track infection patterns and try to predict new cases.
“They were fighting it village by village in fairly remote areas," Small said. "And I think they did press into service some mobile technologies."
In order to be truly useful, he said, granular data is important. In the case of the Ebola outbreak, for instance, it would be useful to identify patterns among the disease’s victims.
“That level of granularity [is what we’re looking for] — is it happening in this village? Is it happening to these people? Did they go to this sporting event?” he said.
SAP is also involved in a project that brings together information from across the entire supply chain — from raw material gathering to selling a good to a consumer — and identifying red flags for unfair business practices.
And they're honing in on one practice in particular. “They’re going to use the data to help find places where slavery, essentially — forced labor — exists,” Small said.
Working through its subsidiary Ariba, which helps manage supply chains, SAP has partnered with the Bay Area non-governmental organization Made in a Free World to get insights along supply chains that a person in each individual node along the system might not notice. A person buying raw materials might know where the materials are coming from, for instance, but might not know what conditions are like at the operation.
Sometimes the data to solve a problem is already there and just needs to be combined with other data sets or analyzed in a new way to unlock its potential. But because the sustainable development goals are meant to apply to the entire world — much of which is without Internet access, let alone robust data collection systems — a big piece of the partnership is to build up data collecting capabilities.
“It creates a virtuous cycle of more informed actions," Small said, "and those actions are better tracked and measured, and that can help you on further action."
All told, the UN’s Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) expects it will cost about $1 billion USD — less than the revenue Haiti’s national government works with every year — to enable 77 of the world’s poorer countries to collect enough data to measure progress on the sustainable development goals. That’s where the SDSN wants to focus, according to associate director Jessica Espey: Enabling measurement on progress toward the goals.
“It helps us know where we’re most needed and the kinds of resources that are required,” she said.
There is often data that could be useful for the public, but it’s locked behind closed doors for security and privacy purposes, Espey said. In the example of birth registration, for instance, national governments might not have access to data of other groups that count citizens.
“You can be getting useful population data from other useful sources like local government [registers] or even from private companies,” she said.
So part of the process in building data will be breaking down barriers. But part of it will also be building systems to mine data that isn’t collected yet.
“You still have to invest in the nuts and bolts of a statistical system," Espey said, "or you’re getting nowhere."
Ben Miller is the business beat staff writer for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.