UN Data Forum: My experience with data and daydreaming

I recently represented Kathmandu Living Labs at the second UN World Data Forum hosted by Federal Competitiveness and Statistics Authority of United Arab Emirates from October 22 to 24 in Dubai. It was supported by Statistics Division of the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, under the guidance of the UN Statistical Commission and the High-level Group for Partnership, Coordination and Capacity-Building for Statistics for the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The forum covered six thematic areas: new approaches to capacity development for better data; innovations and synergies across data ecosystems; leaving no one behind; understanding the world through data; building trust in data and statistics, and looking at the progress of the data for development agenda. The opportunity to attend the data forum was made possible through knowledge grant offered by “Data for Development in Nepal” (D4D) program implemented by The Asia Foundation in partnership with Development initiatives and supported by the UK aid.
People who are left behind may be either unknown or muted or unheard or silent or ignored. Household surveys typically omit by design – people who are not in the household, people who are in a hospital or in the military or in a prison. While the context has changed a lot, survey methods and tools have not. And since the census or official data is not timely and is quite challenging, there is a data gap introduced by lack of intercensal update. So there is a need for alternative data approaches and perpetual censuses or censuses at the community level. Community-based data collection approach as in Uganda could be equally applicable in Nepalese context, where locals could be empowered by development partners to identify and prioritize the more pressing needs that district authorities fail to recognize. But still, the fact that there could be some biases in this approach as well, cannot be overlooked. 
While the central government has scale and authority, the neighborhood has resolution and resident buy-in. Data generated from citizens are from real people, of real problems, is driven by issues, problem-oriented and consensually produced. While Citizen Generated Data (CGD) does not always provide alternatives to the official data, it should be actively included in government research as government-supported CGD initiatives may be more long-lasting. CGD can be thought of as a collaborative process aimed to harness informal data producers (citizens) to support formal data users ( National Statistical Offices or NSOs). One of such relevant initiative could be mapping in OpenStreetMap (OSM) that can possibly help in reducing data gaps brought by the interval between censuses.
The shift from Millenium Development Goals (MDGs) to Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) puts the data and statistics at the very core of its implementation. We need to leverage statistical capacity to build the state capacity. Investment in statistics and data is still not enough and we need longer commitments. This applies very well to developing country like ours. With the existing situation where we tend to believe our friends more than the official statistics, we need to increase trust in data and statistics. In the democracy, trust has to be earned, it can’t be easily given. Every effort must be made to generate trustworthy data. Data should also address people’s real concerns. We should strive for granularity of the data. Because every individual surveyed after Nepal Earthquake 2015 counts and no one deserves to be treated as an average. 
We often talk about open data but rarely on accessible data. While the Affordability Report shows that 2 billion people live in countries with the unaffordable internet, opening up data is not enough – it should be accessible as well. We need to engage and ensure usuability. If we are talking about open data, there should be a bold effort of letting people know the truth. Since an initiative to measure corruption is duly an effort to fight it, we could possibly make use of surveys to produce data on corruption. In this mission of meeting the SDGs through data revolution, data from the private organization can also be used for the public good – without individual representation and in aggregated and anonymized manner. This aligns with the case of Mastercard where they could potentially use the data of cigarette buyers to help implement anti-smoking campaigns.
Data journalism is still primitive in our context. And to empower those who normally don’t speak data, we need to communicate well. It’s time that our communication experts or our media help the statisticians to package data into a content that’s more in a language of people.
While I was putting on a hat of a data enthusiast, organizers of data forum made possible for something entirely different, a breathtaking showcase –  La Perle by Dragone. It was a masterpiece of acting, acrobatics, and stunts with visually captivating and surreal experience. It really shifted the setting from data to day-dreaming for me. Since I am much of a software developer and work mostly in the field of technology, I needed to comprehend the discussions in the forum from a broader perspective, to see the bigger picture and to understand the encompassing elements around technology. While many ideas and concepts could be contextualized in Nepal, some of them still need to be thought of for their relevancy. From various exhibits and sessions on Dubai, it reflected that when government proactively invests in innovation greater things can be achieved. 
The 2018 United Nations World Data Forum underscores the value of disaggregated, timely, quality, relevant and open data to ensure no one is left behind. This forum is surely a stepping stone to enable quality data to better support the delivery of the 2030 agenda for sustainable development.


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