Our Top Four Takeaways from the UN World Data Forum

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This past week, I was lucky enough to attend the United Nations World Data Forum in Dubai. While this is only the second World Data Forum to be held, the first in Cape Town in 2017, the importance of good quality, open data to the success of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is clear. I was keen to share the findings of our US Foreign Assistance Project, and to experience all the different ways transparency is important to the Sustainable Development Agenda. Here are my top 4 takeaways:

1. Transparency is an integral, cross cutting part of multiple agendas

While at the forum, I attended sessions on a wide variety of topics, including data interoperability, data driven decision making, violence against women, and the role of AI in development technologies. In every single one of these sessions, transparency was extremely relevant. In fact, at the end of the conference, the Dubai Declaration was officially adopted, in which it acknowledged that ‘the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development cannot be realized without quality, timely, relevant, open and disaggregated data to ensure that no one is left behind.’ Indeed, my questions and comments on funding transparency were well received in sessions about the No One Left Behind Agenda. While this is an as yet little explored area of aid transparency, it makes sense.

2. Aid transparency is crucial to the fulfilment of the SDGs and the Leave No One behind agenda

The development sector is vast and varied, but it does broadly have a central organisational compass—the Sustainable Millennium Goals. A crucial element to fulfilling the SDGs is the commitment to Leave No One Behind, which mandates that development policies target the furthest behind, the most vulnerable, the most ‘disaffected’, first.

3. There is a need for better humanitarian data

In line with this agenda, one of the biggest themes at this year’s conference was the need for better humanitarian data. There were several panels on this, including harnessing mobile phone data for a better humanitarian response, understanding humanitarian data in crises situations, and ways to bridge the gap between development data and humanitarian data. This last session raised some answers that were particularly interesting for the transparency agenda: what counts as good enough data in an emergency? Which data points are more important than others to collect and publish? How much effort can an organisation in an emergency situation be reasonably expected to spend on data? The answers to these questions are all different than they would be in a traditional development situation, and require consideration. At Publish What You Fund, we’ve begun working on a project to try and tackle some of these difficult questions.

4. There is a need for gender disaggregated data

What was likely the most prominent theme within the Leave No One Behind Agenda was the need for gender disaggregated data. This was a popular area of discussion, and something Publish What You Fund is currently . I had fruitful conversations with organisations like Data2X, Open Data Watch, the UNDP, and the Global Partnership for Development Data, and many others, all of which stressed the need for more and better gender disaggregated data at all levels of development work. When the 2030 Agenda was adopted, it called for development data to be disaggregated along a set of eight indicators ‘age, sex, race, ethnicity, migratory status, disability, and geographic location.’ Transparency of good quality, disaggregated data is crucial to fulfilling the Leave No One Behind Agenda—without publishing of good quality data, how can we know which groups to target first?

Interestingly, while aid transparency is clearly a very important aspect in the progress of sustainable development, I also noticed that I was frequently the only one talking about it. My comments and questions were always well received, with many people directly acknowledging the importance of funding transparency, but only after the subject had been brought up. What this demonstrated to me was that we here at Publish What You Fund still have a lot of work to do in order to get transparency high on the agenda where it should be! Overall, this year’s WDF was a great experience, with lots of important lessons for the role of transparency in development data. We’re looking forward to seeing you all in 2020 in Bern!