Unlocking the power of open data for the SDGs

Credit: Karen Chadhari, Salto del Penitente, Lavalleja Department, Uruguay

We need data to understand what governments are, or are not, doing to reach the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). With just 12 percent of the SDGs on track to be achieved by 2030, data has never been more important in guiding the path forward. 

A robust follow-up and review mechanism for the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development,” the United Nations (UN) states, “requires a solid framework of indicators and statistical data to monitor progress, inform policy, and ensure accountability of all stakeholders.“  These indicators and data are often reported by governments through Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs). However, this information is not always made available publicly or in an open format. Of a sample of 11 (out of 39 total) VNRs submitted in 2023, only half mentioned open data or open government. We believe that when governmental data is not easily accessible, its value to the public remains locked away. 

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When the data that governments create for reporting mechanisms is not open, easily accessible, and available to stakeholders (such as civil society organizations, academia, or even other government agencies), it significantly limits the value of data and how it can be reused and repurposed to inform decision-making. When data tracking the SDGs is open (i.e. open by default, accessible, updated, comprehensive, interoperable, and comparable), citizens have easier access to information to participate, give feedback, and generally exercise accountability and control over how they are represented and what decisions are made using their data.  

We wanted to understand how different countries’ data governance arrangements impact the openness of SDG data and ultimately progress on the SDGs. To investigate whether the potential of open data is being used globally, we at the Open Data Charter are working in partnership with Open Data Watch on a research project looking at models of data governance and publication of monitoring data for the SDGs. 

Through an examination of VNRs and open data for three SDGs, SDG3 (Good health and well-being), SDG5 (Gender equality), and SDG13 (Climate action), we have been trying to answer key questions. Who is leading on the data creation and consolidation for reporting on these SDGs? Is open data part of the governance framework being used by countries? Do governments make the data they report to the UN open? What is the gap between VNRs and openly-available data and why?

Open data to accelerate progress

VNRs are the process by which countries take stock of and assess progress and challenges in the implementation of the SDGs. They are a snapshot of where a country stands and where progress still needs to be made. The UN Secretary-General suggests that each country carry out two VNRs in the 15-year period set to achieve the SDGs (2015-2030). However, much of the data used to inform the VNRs is not made available to the public by default, and it is up to governments whether, how, and to what extent they make it open. 

Through our review it became clear that there are many common challenges for countries in creating useful and open datasets including coordination between government departments, limited evidence and data availability on SDG topics, limited disaggregated data collection, and human and financial constraints. All of these ultimately mean that gaining a full picture of progress on the SDGs is extremely difficult, and that what data is available is often not made open. This ultimately means that decision-making on investments to drive progress on the SDGs is ill-informed and inefficient. 

Governments should be striving for openness across all their datasets, as openness can help public institutions to lower costs and reduce the time needed to generate reports in accordance with international obligations, and to make public policy decisions based on evidence. For citizens, having access to open data improves accountability and monitoring, and allows people to add value to data through reuse, as well as to see how they are being represented in official data. One example we loved of open data driving meaningful policy impact was in Moldova, where an open government and open data approach to HIV medication procurement has led to 19 percent savings on HIV medicine budget, as well as 15.4 percent savings on medical procurement transactions overall. This is huge for a country which has some of the highest HIV rates in Europe and was only made possible by working with civil society to pursue an open, transparency-led approach. 

Using open data for SDG monitoring: best practices

In our research, we found many countries are prioritizing open data in an effort to achieve the SDGs and reaping the benefits of opening up data. 

Uruguay has made great efforts to ensure climate data is available in open formats. The Ministry of Environment has worked together with AGESIC (The Agencia de Gobierno Electrónico y Sociedad de la Información y del Conocimiento), in implementing the Open Data Charter’s Open Up Guide to Advance Climate Action, to make information related to climate change action available in an open format. Not only were 30 new datasets opened in the climate change data catalog, but the reuse of this data was also promoted through two Open Data Challenges for Climate Action where organizations, students, activists and others presented projects based on the data published by the Ministry of Environment, working collaboratively on solutions to public challenges. The winning project, called Uruguay 2100, tells a story of how sea level rise will affect the Uruguayan coast. The team created maps using open data to show the areas at risk of flooding in Montevideo to inform public planning and local advocacy by communities who stand to be impacted. 

Other good examples of climate action using data are Chile’s Open Energy Portal and Colombia’s environmental information system, both of which are publishing data visualizations to make the information more accessible for stakeholders to use, as well as allowing the monitoring of public policies.

Then there is healthdata.gov, launched by the United States government, which is dedicated to making health data accessible to entrepreneurs, researchers, and policy makers in the hopes of driving investment and decisions focused on better health outcomes for all. The site has made highlighting the most under-resourced areas in need of Covid-19 support simple, to help focus funding and efforts. For example, publicly-available sources can help us to identify, illustrate, and address disparate access to health care, behavioral health, and home and community-based services.

On gender data, we were impressed with the Gender Data Compass, which shows sex-disaggregated data and measures data points unique to women, such as maternal mortality ratios and fertility rates. This information is crucial for monitoring gender equality outcomes and taking action to promote the welfare of women and girls. In the same vein, a practical tool that allows governments to work on data for gender equality is the Open Up Guide for the Care Sector. Publishing and using accessible, comparable and timely data on various dimensions of the gendered inequality in health can paint a picture of where problems are and stimulate private and public sector efforts needed to close these gaps.

Don’t underestimate the impact of open data on the SDGs. 

VNRs and general country progress on the SDGs should be transparent and verifiable, and thus should go hand-in-hand with open data. Open data is also beneficial to governments in accelerating progress: not only does it improve transparency and accountability of government decision-making, it also encourages citizens and other stakeholders to use this data. Furthermore, open datasets can reduce costs and time by encouraging standardization, interoperability, and regular updating of information. With more open data, we’ll see better public policy development and decision-making based on stronger evidence. Our review has shown that we still have a long way to go to achieve open data on the status of the SDGs, but it has also shown how much potential open data holds in unlocking progress on the SDGs and helping people around the world achieve better health, a cleaner environment and greater gender equality. 

If you want to learn more about our research, stay tuned for the publication of the report “Open Data and the SDGs,” coming soon. To learn more about the Open Data Charter´s work, visit our website: https://opendatacharter.org/.

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