Last week, the United Nations Statistical Commission agreed to the indicators for the Sustainable Development Goals. So what exactly is an indicator, and why does it matter? To learn more, I talked to Jenna Slotin, the United Nations Foundation’s Post-2015 Initiative Director and Interim Program Manager for the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data. 

Our conversation covered a lot of ground, but one thing became clear: the importance of data to achieving the global goals and the crucial role of the indicators in ensuring we’re collecting the right data.

– We need data to fully understand people’s lives and the problems we’re grappling with.

– We need data to make informed decisions about policies and programs.

– And we need data so we can measure whether we’re making progress toward the goals, and where to make changes if we’re not.

The challenge is that many countries don’t have robust, reliable data (or any data, in some cases) on many issues. So part of our work to achieve the global goals will be sharing data and strengthening the systems to collect and analyze data. Getting the indicators right will help ensure efforts to improve data are directed to the right things. 

The Millennium Development Goals showed that global monitoring works. But we also know that a lot more needs to be done to make that monitoring meaningful. Like the consultations and negotiations to develop the global goals, the discussion on the indicators touches many groups, including the public and private sectors and all of the communities whose work touches on the 17 global goals.

Here is a 101 on the indicators for the global goals.

Jenni Lee: What are the indicators for the Sustainable Development Goals?

Jenna Slotin: The indicators are a critical foundation of the Sustainable Development Goals – they tell us what to measure to track whether we’re reaching the goals and targets in the agenda.

For example, the first goal in the sustainable development agenda is to: “End poverty in all its forms everywhere.” Under that goal, the first target is to: “By 2030, eradicate extreme poverty for all people everywhere, currently measured as people living on less than $1.25 a day.” The indicator to let us know if we are approaching this target is to measure the “proportion of the population below the international poverty line.”

Another example is that by measuring the percentage of the population using safely managed drinking water services (indicator 6.1.1), we’ll know whether we’re approaching our goal of achieving universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all, as set in Sustainable Development Goal 6. 

By checking on how we’re doing on these indicators every year, we’ll know whether progress is fast enough and whether we need to make course corrections to meet the global goals.

JL: Why do the indicators matter?

JS: The indicators make the global goals operational. They provide important guideposts to tell us whether we’re on the right path to achieve our goals. If we don’t measure the right things, we won’t know if our policies and programs are having any effect, which makes it harder to reach the goals. 

If designed correctly, the indicators should highlight real people’s experiences and whether their lives are getting better or worse. The Sustainable Development Goals aim to ensure no one is left behind, and the indicators will help capture the experience of the most vulnerable and marginalized people so we can make this vision a reality. 

JL: What is the process to decide them? Where are we in that process, and what are the next steps?

JS: Because indicator development is very technical, the UN’s Statistical Commission was asked to develop the indicators. The commission set up an expert advisory group made up of country representatives from national statistical offices and expert observers. This group developed the indicators through a series of consultations with each other and with civil society and outside experts. 

At its meeting last week, the UN Statistical Commission decided on the indicators that were proposed by this expert group. Now, the indicators will be discussed by all countries in the General Assembly and the UN Economic and Social Council. 

Although the Statistical Commission has agreed on the indicators, many of them are still controversial with experts disagreeing on the formulation, methodology, and data sources for some indicators. The expert group that developed the indicators has acknowledged that more work needs to be done and the Statistical Commission calls them a “practical starting point.” How the data will be disaggregated to show the experience of all groups, particularly those that are furthest behind like adolescent girls and marginalized ethnic groups, is still a work-in-progress. This issue gets very technical very quickly, but it really matters if we’re going to make good on our promise to leave no one behind.

The expert advisory group will continue to exist and support the refinement of the indicators over the 15-year life of the global goals because we know that methods and technologies can change during this period. They have a particularly intense work program for the next year to address some of basic disagreements on formulation, methodology and data sources.

JL: How will the indicators be used?

JS: As I mentioned earlier, the indicators tell us what to measure so we can see progress toward the targets and goals.

The formal monitoring process involves every country reporting on the indicators through UN specialized agencies. These agencies will compile and harmonize the data, and it will then be reported in an annual report of the Secretary-General showing global and regional progress on the Sustainable Development Goals.

But the indicators can and should be used by everyone to hold leaders accountable. They will help us track progress and advocate for renewed commitments and course corrections.

JL: What are some of the big opportunities and risks going forward? 

JS: We have very serious data gaps across the goals, particularly on people that are the furthest behind. Many countries don’t even know how many babies are born there each year. If we’re going to achieve our goal of ending extreme poverty and improving the lives of the poorest and most marginalized we need to better understand their needs and experiences as well as empower them to demand that their needs are met. Data and information are critical tools make that happen.

The world we live in today is exploding with data and technology – a “data revolution.” We have an unprecedented opportunity to leverage data from new sources combine these with traditional or official sources like census and survey data for new insights. This will require bringing a range of stakeholders together across sectors and data communities to collaborate, innovate, and solve problems related to data access, quality, and use. That’s why the UN Foundation is so excited to host the new Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data at the UN Foundation, which provides a platform to do just that.