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This Revolution Will Be Televised

On Thursday, November 7th the UN Secretary-General’s Independent Expert Advisory Group (IEAG) on the Data Revolution for Sustainable Development released an important report entitled A World that Counts: Mobilizing the Data Revolution for Sustainable Development and held a series of launch events. Earlier, on September 26, 2014, Prof. Elizabeth A. Wilson had participated in an outreach meeting for this report with members of the IEAG and civil society representatives on the topic of Open Data and Accountability, during which she stressed the importance of strengthening Freedom of Information Acts through capacity-building engagements with civil society organizations.

The IAEA report was prepared under considerable time constraint, in order to be included as part of Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon’s Synthesis Report that will be distributed to Member States at the end of 2014. The Synthesis Report will be used to frame negotiations leading up to a September 2015 UN Summit, where Member States are expected to agree on ambitious post-MDG sustainable development goals (SDGs).

The IEAG report includes five key recommendations:

1. “Develop a global consensus on principles and standards”; in other words, create a common language among private, public and civil society data and statistics providers;

2. “Share technology and innovations for the common good”; the report proposes the creation of global “Data Innovation Networks,” to bring together experts and individuals working in the field to “contribute to the adoption of best practices for improving the monitoring of SDG’s, identify areas where common data related infrastructures could address capacity problems improve efficiency, encourage collaborations, identify critical research gaps and create incentives to innovate”;

3. “New Resources for capacity development”; the report states that improving the quality of data is itself a development goal. In particular, the report recommends a new funding stream to support the data revolution for sustainable development be presented at the “Third International Conference on Financing for Development” that will be held in Addis Ababa in July 2015;

4. “Leadership for coordination and mobilization”; the report proposes a UN-led “Global partnership for Sustainable Development Data,” with suggested specific initiatives to include a “World Forum on Sustainable Development Data bringing together representatives from the entire data ecosystem to share ideas and experiences; a “Global Users Forum for Data for SDG’s,” aimed at, inter alia, “ensuring feedback loops between data producers;” and initiatives to “broker[ ] key global public-private partnerships for data sharing”;

5. “Exploit some quick wins on SDG data” by establishing an “SDG’s data lab” to develop SDG analysis and visualization platforms and build the dashboard from diverse data sources on “the state of the world.”

The report further set out basic principles for the data revolution for sustainable development: 1) data quality and integrity; 2) data disaggregation; 3) data timeliness; 4) data transparency and openness; 5) data usability and duration; 6) data protection and privacy; 7) data governance and independence; 8) data resources and capacity; and 9) data (human) rights, including the right to be counted, the right to due process, and the right to privacy and ownership of personal data. Among these principles, perhaps most notable is the one on data transparency, because the IEAG stated that “All data on public matters and/or funded by public funds, including those data produced by the private sector, should be made public and ‘open by default’, with narrow exceptions for genuine security or privacy concerns” (italics added). ”

At the evening launch event at the Scandinavia House in NYC, the IAEG Secretary Claire Melamed quipped, “This revolution will be televised,” referring to the large screens set up around the room showcasing what the data revolution has already achieved. Particularly impressive was a public-private initiative where the University of Minnesota School of Public Health used strongly anonymised data from the Orange mobile telephone network combined with information on the spread of Malaria from the WHO to produce more detailed epidemiological models on long-term malaria tracking and predicting in Cote d’Ivoire than any currently in use. UNICEF also showcased an impressive youth engagement initiative that involved disseminating cell phones and then relaying polling questions and collecting real-time answers to aid in program development.

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