By Steve MacFeely

Mr. MacFeely is Head of Statistics at the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), in Geneva, Switzerland.

Photo Credit: UNCTAD Website

Next week the virtual UN World Data Forum kicks off. In the run up to the forum, it is useful to reflect on the conclusions of the last one.

The Dubai Declaration, drafted at the close of the 2018 UN World Data Forum stated ‘that the data demands for the 2030 Agenda require urgent new solutions that leverage the power of new data sources and technologies through partnerships between national statistical authorities and the private sector, civil society, and academia and other research institutions’ [59: para.7].

Like motherhood and apple pie, who could disagree? But reading the declaration back in 2018, I found myself wondering, ok, so how do we leverage this power? What are these new solutions? What would incentivize the private sector to cooperate with official statisticians? What would allow official statisticians to trust statistics compiled by civil society or citizen science? How do we move from words to actions?

It was these questions, and others like them, that prompted Bojan Nastav (former Director General of Statistics of Slovenia) and I, to publish a paper: You say you want a (Data) Revolution: A proposal to use unofficial statistics for the SDG global indicator framework. This paper explores how we might leverage the intellectual capital, knowledge creativity and resulting statistics of the communities outside official statistics. 

Our proposal was inspired by history. Some of the greatest scientific discoveries have come from ‘unofficial’ or amateur scientists: John Harrison (H1 ships chronometer); Michael Faraday (electrolysis and electromagnetic induction); Gregor Mendel (dominant/recessive genes); William Herschel (telescopic lenses); and Charles Darwin (theory of evolution). Amateurs such as these were able to make such important contributions to science, and have their work recognized, because bodies such as the Royal Society, were willing and able to authenticate their work. If they could do it, then why can’t we? Surely, we could adopt a similar approach for SDG indicators?

While you ponder that question, just remember, professional scientists did not have a monopoly on scientific wisdom in the past. Official statisticians do not have a monopoly on wisdom or data today. So, to leverage the intellectual capital and the resulting statistics of citizen science, of civil society, of academia and of the private sector, we suggest that the UN could create a modern day Académie des Sciences.

The idea is simple. Why not introduce a mechanism to certify unofficial statistics as official? Using unofficial data to compile official statistics is nothing new. National and international statistical offices use unofficial data everyday as inputs to their work. Why not go a step further and use already compiled unofficial statistics to fill some gaps in the SDGs? So, at the global level the UN could certify statistics. At national level it would be done by national statistics offices.

Readers will notice that I have drawn an important distinction between data and statistics. Let me explain. Data and statistics are not the same thing. While these terms are frequently used inter-changeably, they are in fact two different things. Data are basic elements or single pieces of information. Statistics are numerical data that have been organized through mathematical operations in line with conceptual frameworks. We are interested in leveraging the later – fully baked statistics. 

Naturally, this proposal has received a mixed reaction. Some like it, others don’t. But that’s not a surprise. Every bold initiative is a gamble. All big decisions involve risk. The trick is to mitigate against the downsides.

We think the 2030 Agenda Global Indicator Framework has created a vacuum. Only 53% of the indicators have data. If this data vacuum is not filled by official statistics, it will be exploited by someone else. The Dubai Declaration was correct — urgent new solutions that leverage the power of new data sources and technologies through partnerships that leverage the power of new data sources are needed. Our paper presents one such solution.

Steve MacFeely will present his arguments at the forthcoming virtual UN World Data Forum. *you can still register. See Integrating Citizen Science into the SDG Monitoring Framework Mechanisms and a Proposal to Use Unofficial Statistics for SDG Reporting – Monday, October 19, 12:30 – 13:45 UTC, and Learning From the Geo Open Data Platforms That Worked in the Midst of the Pandemic – Monday, October 19, 15:30 – 16:45 UTC.