The data revolution is rapidly transforming every part of society. Elections are managed with biometrics, forests are monitored by satellite imagery, banking has migrated from branch offices to smartphones, and medical x-rays are examined halfway around the world.
With a bit of investment and foresight, spelled out in a new report, prepared by the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network, on data for development, the data revolution can drive a sustainable development revolution, and accelerate progress toward ending poverty, promoting social inclusion, and protecting the environment.
The world’s governments will adopt the new Sustainable Development Goals at a special United Nations summit on September 25. The occasion will likely be the largest gathering of world leaders in history, as some 170 heads of state and government adopt shared goals that will guide global development efforts until 2030. Of course, goals are easier to adopt than to achieve. So we will need new tools, including new data systems, to turn the SDGs into reality by 2030. In developing these new data systems, governments, businesses, and civil society groups should promote four distinct purposes.
The first, and most important, is data for service delivery. The data revolution gives governments and businesses new and greatly improved ways to deliver services, fight corruption, cut red tape, and guarantee access in previously isolated places. Information technology is already revolutionising the delivery of healthcare, education, governance, infrastructure (for example, prepaid electricity), banking, emergency response, and much more.
The second purpose is data for public management. Officials can now maintain real-time dashboards informing them of the current state of government facilities, transport networks, emergency relief operations, public health surveillance, violent crimes, and much more. Citizen feedback can also improve functioning, such as by crowd-sourcing traffic information from drivers. Geographic information systems (GIS) allow for real-time monitoring across local governments and districts in far-flung regions.
The third purpose is data for accountability of governments and businesses. It is a truism that government bureaucracies cut corners, hide gaps in service delivery, exaggerate performance, or, in the worst cases, simply steal when they can get away with it. Many businesses are no better. The data revolution can help to ensure that verifiable data are accessible to the general public and the intended recipients of public and private services. When services do not arrive on schedule (owing to, say, a bottleneck in construction or corruption in the supply chain), the data system will enable the public to pinpoint problems and hold governments and businesses to account.
Finally, the data revolution should enable the public to know whether or not a global goal or target has actually been achieved.
Prof Jeffrey Sachs is Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. He is also Special Adviser to the United Nations Secretary-General on the Millennium Development Goals. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2015.