For nearly a year, Claire Melamed lived in an invisible place.
It was a tiny village in Mozambique that didn’t exist on any maps. No one knew how many people lived there, who was born there, or who died there. This information didn’t exist in any official records.
This experience taught Claire about the power of data — and why basic statistics about a particular community are more than mere numbers. “The numbers that society collects both reflect power and influence power,” she says. “So of course, it’s no surprise that in any society, those people about whom we know least tend to also be the least powerful.”
As the world works to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) — the universal roadmap toward peace, prosperity, and equality — policymakers and program experts are too often forced to rely on old and incomplete data to guide their decisions.
That’s where the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data comes in. Launched in 2015 and hosted at the United Nations Foundation, this initiative exists to bridge gaps in data by bringing governments, companies, academics, and resources together. The overall goal is what Claire, the head of the Global Partnership, calls “a data revolution.”
As part of these efforts, the Global Partnership will be launching Data4Now — a new collaboration to collect and utilize real-time data at a global level — at the UN General Assembly this month.
I spoke with Claire about the upcoming launch, the very real consequences of inadequate and inaccurate data, and how governments and the private sector are sharing vital information for the greater good.
Tell me about the origins of the Global Partnership. Why is this initiative so important?
We were launched at the same time as Sustainable Development Goals to support a wide range of partners: Governments, companies, civil society organizations, all those who were going to be responsible for achieving and supporting those goals. To do that, all of these partners need to have the right data to make the right decisions, as well as monitor progress so they know whether what they’re doing is working.
The world of data, as we all know, is becoming more and more complicated. It’s no longer just the business of governments, but it’s also the business of the companies who are generating huge amounts of data through technology. It’s also the business of civil society organizations who use data to advocate for change, and the business of academics who are driving a lot of the progress in terms of the robust methods we can use to actually turn data into insights about our society.
Data is the business of many, many different groups. The Global Partnership was created to bring all of those groups together and make sure the resources we have for data — the financial resources, the amazing technical capacity, people’s skills, the data itself — are being used in the best way possible to make progress where it’s most needed on the Sustainable Development Goals.
There’s a growing recognition that data should be driving decisions of all kinds. What do you think led to this shift and growing enthusiasm?
I think a lot of the excitement around data is being driven by a sense of growing possibilities. I originally come from an academic background and certainly academics, policymakers, and many others have been all too well aware of the inadequacies in data for many years. But until quite recently, nobody thought it was a problem they could ever solve.
I think what’s really changed in the last few years — and this is thanks to new technology and huge investment by many different actors — is that suddenly there’s a real sense of possibility that we don’t have to live with this anymore. We can and should, in fact, demand better data on which to base decisions, on which to do analyses to understand the world as it is.
How does this drive toward better data translate into results for sustainable development?
I think one of the strengths of the Sustainable Development Goals is that they have a deadline. From the moment in 2015 when those goals were launched, when the gavel came down at the UN, the clock was ticking. So they’ve really drawn attention to the necessary speed of change and the importance of making the right decisions to really accelerate progress, and the fact that we don’t have time to lose. Of course, since then, with the climate crisis rising up the political agenda, that sense of urgency has only been amplified.
What was particularly frustrating to many people about the data they were being forced to use — partly to make decisions and also to monitor progress — is simply that the data was not keeping pace with people’s lives and with the urgency of the decisions that had to be made. With this global roadmap laid out ahead of us, people became all too aware that they were driving toward decisions and accelerating changes at unprecedented speeds, yet only had visibility in the rearview mirror.
Why is this month’s UN General Assembly such an important moment for data for sustainable development?
The UN Deputy-Secretary General Amina Mohammed will be announcing a new, real-time data partnership that we’re launching with the World Bank, the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, the UN Statistics Division, and several countries — including Ghana, the UK, Rwanda, Paraguay, Mongolia and others — called the “Data For Now” initiative.
What we’re doing is bringing together those partners — governments, companies, and others — who want to actually look at the world as it is when we’re making critical decisions. These are partners that want to use the world’s best knowledge to solve the world’s worst problems, which is what the SDGs are all about.
What are some examples of partnerships that really excite you when it comes to thinking about the future of real-time data to drive development?
One of our most exciting partnerships involves the Africa Regional Data Cube, in which five countries across Africa joined forces with NASA and Amazon to have access to satellite data that could give them a sense of what was going on with agriculture and the environment.
At the Global Partnership, we were able to broker this partnership not only by introducing these partners and helping provide access to this data, but also by working with them to provide the capacity development, training, and technical support necessary for these governments to effectively use it.
You delivered a Ted Talk last year in which you pointed out that data is much more than just numbers — they actually reflect power and justice. Can you talk about why this idea is so central to the Global Partnership’s mission?
We think of data as numbers on a spreadsheet, but data comes from conversations between people. The numbers that society collects both reflect power and influence power. So of course, it’s no surprise that in any society, those people about whom we know least tend to also be the least powerful. People who live in the most remote communities often don’t have access to services because enumerators never go there.
One interesting example here is data collection in slums. Too often, government officials would just rather pretend people living in informal housing are not there by not counting them. Because they weren’t facing reality, politicians making decisions about where they were going to situate a clinic or a new school chose to ignore the needs of those slum dwellers, thus reinforcing inequalities that exist already. That’s why being invisible in the data can mean that it’s just another aspect of the inequalities that so many people confront.
But, of course, what’s so great is the way in which more groups are now using data and putting themselves into the data as an instrument of advocacy. Most famously, in the Kibera slum in Nairobi, people living there have taken it upon themselves to map where they live, to show how many children live there, what the needs for schools are, how poor the sanitation is. It’s not just stories, it’s well-documented evidence about a large group of people that they can then take to their city authorities, to other decision makers, and use as an advocacy tool to demand better services.
So data can both reflect inequalities, but also serve as an important tool to overcome some of those inequalities. This is why data is so powerful.