Thu, Sep 24, 2015 - Page 9 News List

The data revolution for sustainable development

Real-time data collection could be the answer to making the governments of developing countries accountable and to obtaining UN development goals

By Jeffrey Sachs, Enrico Giovannini, Robert Chen and Shaida Badi

Illustration: Mountain People

There is growing recognition that the success of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) — that are to be adopted tomorrow at a special UN summit — are likely to depend on the ability of governments, businesses and civil society to harness data for decisionmaking. The key is to invest in building innovative data systems that draw on new sources of real-time data for sustainable development.

We live in a data-driven world. Advertisers, insurance companies, national security agencies and political advisers have already learned to tap into big data, sometimes to our chagrin; so, too, have countless scientists and researchers, thereby accelerating progress on new discoveries, but the global development community has been slower to benefit — not least because too much development data are still being collected using cumbersome approaches that lag behind today’s technological capabilities.

One way to improve data collection and use for sustainable development is to create an active link between the provision of services and the collection and processing of data for decisionmaking.

Take healthcare services. Every day, in remote villages of developing countries, community health workers help patients fight diseases (such as malaria), get to clinics for checkups, receive vital immunizations, obtain diagnoses (through telemedicine) and access emergency aid for their infants and young children (such as for chronic malnutrition), but the information from such visits is usually not collected and even if it is put on paper, it is never used again.

We now have a much smarter way to proceed. Community health workers are increasingly supported by smartphone applications, which they can use to log patient information at each visit. That information can go directly onto public-health dashboards, which health managers can use to spot disease outbreaks, failures in supply chains or the need to bolster technical staff. Such systems can provide a real-time log of vital events, including births and deaths, and even use so-called verbal autopsies to help identify causes of death. And, as part of electronic medical records, the information can be used at future visits to the doctor or to remind patients of the need for follow-up visits or medical interventions.

Education provides the same kind of vast opportunity. Currently, school enrollment rates tend to be calculated based on student registrations at the beginning of the school year, even though actual attendance might be far below the registration rate. Moreover, officials wishing to report higher enrollment rates sometimes manipulate registration data, so we never get an accurate picture of who is actually at school.

With mobile apps, schools and community education workers can log student and teacher attendance on a transparent, real-time basis and follow up more easily with students who drop out, especially for reasons that could be overcome through informed intervention by community education workers. This information can be fed automatically into dashboards that education administrators can use to track progress in key areas.

Such data collection can accelerate sustainable development by improving decisionmaking, but that is only the first step. The same techniques should also be used to collect some of the key indicators that measure progress on the SDGs.

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