On 19 February 2019, the first dialogue of the Road to Bern via Geneva initiative entitled ‘How can big data contribute to leaving no one behind and achieving the SDGs?’ was held at the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO). The event was organised by the Permanent Mission of Switzerland to the UN in Geneva and the Geneva Internet Platform (GIP), and was co-hosted by the WMO and the World Health Organisation (WHO). The dialogue gathered representatives of permanent missions, civil society, international organisations, and the press.
In his introductory remarks, Mr Jean-Pierre Reymond, Chargé de Mission and Head of Innovation Partnerships at the Permanent Mission of Switzerland, pointed to the large potential of Geneva to further foster digital cooperation. According to him, Geneva’s ecosystem can contribute both to identifying and fulfilling some of the most pressing data demands of the 2030 Agenda and support the implementation of the UN High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation recommendations. Mr Reymond also highlighted the importance of establishing cross-cutting discussions reflecting a cross-sectoral approach and the full lifecycle of data. The aim of the dialogues is to foster exchanges and participation, contribute to the preparations for the World Data Forum in Bern, and to provide new insights on how the effective use of data can improve economic and human development as outlined in the Agenda 2030.
Building on the reflections provided by Mr Reymond, Dr Eun-Ju Kim, Chief a.i. Digital Knowledge Hub, Telecommunication Development Bureau of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), outlined some of the key opportunities and challenges of collecting big data for the fulfillment of the Agenda 2030, such as the technologies behind data collection, policy and standardisation elements, and the fostering of partnerships and collaboration among stakeholders.
Climate change and the importance of reducing individual carbon footprints were issues addressed by other speakers. Prof. Petteri Taalas, Secretary-General of the WMO, addressed environmental concerns and pointed to the indispensable role of data in this regard. Even as he regards the environmental impact of data centers as a big issue, data about greenhouse gas emissions, air quality, and other climate-related metrics are critical to any analysis that the WMO conducts. To that end, in Prof. Taalas’ words, the WMO can be regarded as a ‘grandparent’ of big data.
Whereas big data offers many opportunities, there are some underlying challenges that need to be addressed. According to Prof. Taalas, some of the key obstacles are related to data access in Africa, some small island states, and a number of countries in Latin America. Addressing these challenges will help improve the WMO’s forecasts.
Dr. Samira Asma, Assistant Director-General, Division for Data, Analytics, and Delivery for Impact at the WHO, also stressed the key role that data plays in addressing pressing societal issues and in improving the lives of those ‘left behind’ (communities displaced by conflict or natural disaster, those living in urban poor or rural remote contexts or those living with stigma and discrimination). However, she pointed to the lack of data for some health-related SDG targets (across a third of all countries) and the fact that only 40% of countries having enough data to monitor Universal Health Coverage (UHC), which poses a serious challenge to monitoring progress, research and policy, planning and budget making.
According to her, there has never been a greater need for timely, accurate, and reliable health-related data and that there are now tools to collect and analyse it effectively. She suggested four solutions to the underlying challenges: 1. establish mutually-agreed upon principles, norms and standards to ensure that data is truly a ‘public good’; 2. shifting the focus to understanding vulnerable communities to increase the availability of disaggregated data and accountability; 3. using the potential of digital technologies for precision public healthcare, whilst acknowledging the need for interoperability and privacy policies and; 4. partnerships between agencies so they can share resources and collaborative ideas to strengthen inter-sectoral approaches to development.
‘Mismatch between expectations around big data and reality’
Dr Steve MacFeely, Head, Statistics and Information at UNCTAD, addressed the role of big data in fulfilling the SDGs which he regards as an ‘unprecedented’ statistical challenge.
He noted it is difficult to provide a clear definition of big data as there is no universal definition of this term. According to Dr MacFeely, the concept of data has experienced a dramatic change in the last few decades as it no longer encompasses solely numbers, but virtually everything.
Dr MacFeely referred to big data as a ‘byproduct’ and underlined the fact that we do not collect big data; rather, big data generates itself. To that end, he observed a number of challenges centered around sensitivity of data and data ownership, confidentiality of individual data and data protection, and a lack of concern about company data surveillance.
On the other hand, Dr Anthony Rea, Director, Infrastructure Department at the WMO, provided a case-specific overview of data management. He summarised the value chain behind meteorology, which includes: data collection and analysis built on the principle of free and open data, data modeling, post-processing and forecasting, dissemination of forecasts, and ultimately, the understanding of forecasts and the related decision-making.
Dr Rea also emphasised the role of the WMO in establishing standards for this data and ensuring it is interoperable and free to exchange.
Moderated by Dr. Craig Burgess, the first panel entitled ‘Principles, standards, quality, and accelerating data collection’ addressed the challenges of data collection and the importance of disaggregated data.
Addressing challenges to data collection
Ms Rebeca Moreno Jimenez, Data Scientist at the UNHCR, sees major obstacles to data collection due to the lack of access to territories in conflict or to remote areas, issues around the consent of data subjects (especially when topics are sensitive), and poor access to connectivity in remote areas. She emphasized the need to engage communities and overcome stigma when looking at data sharing agreements. She noted the emerging role of the private sector in the humanitarian space and the added value of providing data in real time for population movements.
She also shared examples of their work in war-affected areas, such as Aleppo in Syria, and referred to the use of predictive analytics and AI in analysing the massive volume of collected data.
On the other hand, Ms Lidia Bratanova, Director, Statistical Division at UNECE, sees data gaps as one of the underlying setbacks. UNECE therefore focuses on areas that face serious problems with data gaps.
She also pointed to the different definitions of certain issues and methodologies, and the related impacts on collecting data. To that end, she referred to different methodologies on collecting data on children and the different ways age groups are defined in the 1996 Hague Convention on Children and in several other resolutions. She emphasised the role of country experts, the importance of conventions and the need to integrate data (e.g. regular surveys, admin sources and geospatial data).
Some of the challenges addressed by Dr Oliver Morgan, Director, Health Information in Emergencies at the WHO, include the use of basic technologies to collect data for an early response, extensive manual collection of health data in the field, the lack of data scientists, and the need for increased partnerships to overcome coordination challenges. In health emergencies, the WHO is a long way from routinely applying technologies and collecting data, according to Dr Morgan. He emphasised the need for sound infrastructure and investments in existing systems before emergencies happen. Dr Morgan underscored that oftentimes the ability to detect outbreaks or respond to emergencies is not related to money or the GDP – it comes down to field level workers. In view of this, there is a need to build community capacities and work forces that have specialised capacity to analyse data appropriately. There are emerging examples of good collaborations between the public and private sector in emergency contexts.
According to Mr Johannes Cullmann, Coordinator for Water and Cryosphere at the WMO, two issues need to be addressed. The first one pertains to providing adequate data for management and analysis that goes beyond classical data collection. To tackle this challenge, a joint approach combined with relevant norms and standards are needed. The second issue concerns collecting data for forecasting. Forecasting requires different types of data from different areas that do not undergo quality control, but are instead processed immediately.
Ms Natalie Zorzi, Monitoring and Evaluation Senior Manager at The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, stressed the importance of cross-sectoral partnerships to address the challenges of data collection and management. In this regard, the Global Fund focuses on building partnerships with some of the most affected countries and communities (e.g. a number of countries in Africa) in the field of health, and collaborates with the private sector and academia. For instance, it partnered with the University in South Africa in developing a curriculum on e-learning, as well as the capacity building of students at the national level. In this sense, they aspire to build national capacities in the health sector, but also in other related fields.
Finally, Mr Marten Kaevats, National Digital Advisor of Estonia and WHO Digital Health Technical Advisory Group, called on stakeholders to consider Estonia as a role model country for addressing data governance issues – especially learning from peer to peer mechanisms of sharing and governing data. Tackling data challenges does not have to do much with technology, but rather more with culture, attitude and mindset. Using citizen networks and once only principle (where data is only asked for once and stored at that time) is an appealing mechanism. Moreover, he underlined the importance of storing data where it is collected in order to avoid duplications and mistakes as well as cybersecurity threats.
The second panel discussion was dedicated to the subject of ‘sustaining data collection and the power of partnerships’. The discussion was moderated by Ms Clare Nullis, Media Officer at the WMO.
Citizen engagement on data collection
Ms Rosy Mondardini, Managing Director at ETH/UZH Citizen Science Center, spoke on the subject of citizen involvement worldwide in scientific research, including projects that monitor water quality and noise pollution. While collaboration between the two communities can be top-down (i.e. scientists request citizens to get involved in an initiative), co-created projects are also possible. These collaborative efforts offer both citizens and scientists the opportunity to decide on what issues to tackle, the modalities of data collection, and other considerations. Ms Mondardini highlighted some of the reasons for citizen involvement, such as genuine interest in science, interest to influence policy making at the national and local level, and the ability to address issues that are of direct concern to them. She noted that citizen involvement in science goes beyond data contributions. It provides the opportunity for individuals to take ownership over problems and push forward efforts on the attainment of SDGs.
Is data leaving (no one) behind?
Referring to data collection actions in regard to SDGs, Mr Tommaso Abrate, Scientific Officer at the WMO, pointed out that a number of UN agencies are involved in data collection on SDG 6 (Water and Sanitation). Mr Abrate highlighted that the absence of data and poor data collection methods are real challenges that pose the risk of leaving behind the most vulnerable. Abrate proposed three measures that could help tackle these issues, including political support, a gradual approach that moves from basic information towards other more complex data sources, and dialogue between different data collectors.
Mr Jos Verbeek, Manager and Special Representative of the World Bank Group, noted that basic data on SDG indicators, data on the goals themselves including SDG 1 (No Poverty), and data on the progress made so far is missing. 20 years ago, a similar obstacle was faced in relation to the attainment of the millennium development goals (MDGs). In order to overcome this, Mr Verbeek pointed out that the World Bank Group has established a number of strategic partnerships with the WHO (pandemic fund) and the UNHCR (socio-economic conditions in refugee camps), to name a few. Nevertheless, skepticism around these different partnerships persists and proposals for a single scalable effort are gaining ground. Mr Verbeek also touched upon capacity building and underlined that the World Bank is working in India on a statistical plan, but that countries and governments also need to make appropriations for these types to effectively address societal issues.
Mr Luca Pupulin, Executive Director of IMPACT Initiatives, also reflected on the challenge of data collection in the context of crisis. Mr Puplin underscored that the inability of statistical offices to produce data, the complexity of conflict, and the fact that ‘big data’ in these countries is rather ‘small’ are some of the reasons why it is difficult to gather data in crisis-affected areas. He added that weak data on countries affected by crisis results in an inaccurate global picture on issues such as poverty and healthcare.
Transforming challenges into opportunities
Shifting the discussion from challenges to opportunities, Mr Dimitar Ivanov, Director for Public-Private Engagement at the WMO, stressed that the WMO has been driven by data evolution since its foundation and that free and open data remain fundamental to the organisation. Mr Ivanov noted that recent improvements in data collection practices have contributed to more precision in weather forecasting. In order to push positive developments further, the WMO has established the Public-Private Engagement, commonly known as ‘weather enterprise’ that among other things seeks to contribute to the culture of data collection and sharing between actors from the public and private sector.
In her concluding remark, Ms Antonia Gawel, Head of Circular Economy and Innovation at the World Economic Forum (WEF), encouraged participants to to think about ways that we can channel the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) for public good outcomes. Referring to the recent WEF Report entitled ‘Four ways governments can leverage 4IR to achieve the SDGs’, Gawel noted that data represents a massive opportunity, but that more needs to be done in terms of data infrastructure, collection, and processing.
Summary of panel 1: In concluding key takeaways from panel 1, Dr Craig Burgess highlighted five cross-cutting issues that could be considered in moving forward with other dialogues:
- A vision of big data that could have one joint approach across sectors – this may be a vision to aim for.
- We need a set of principles, norms and standards for collecting, storing and using data – currently these are not standardized (examples included issues of interoperability, privacy and regulation / use of AI).
- Capacity building to collect, store and analyse data of HR (training and recruitment for data specialists and statisticians) and of local institutions and universities.
- Leaving no one behind will need approaches that focus on the most vulnerable first, elements of citizen science and understanding the power of communities for disaggregated data.
- National ownership: ownership of data by countries and communities increases the accountability and the profile of use of data for action. This may only come about through clear governance, empowerment of countries working through UN entities and a thriving civil society.
Summary of panel 2: Ms Clare Nullis provided the summary points for panel 2 that could provide more guidance on the road to Bern:
- There is a need to fill the data gap because at present time we do not know who is being left behind. This is fundamental for achieving the SDGs.
- Partnerships between different communities can contribute to the development of sustainable data governance infrastructure.
- Aside from sharing data globally, data collection and exchange systems need to be shared among and between sectors.
Prof. Jovan Kurbalija, Founding Director of DiploFoundation and Head of the Geneva Internet Platform, noted that the first dialogue represents an important step on the Road to Bern. The two panels highlighted the existing gap in data collection and management standards, as well as the need for data cooperation principles that should aim to provide guidance to organisations while not being too intrusive. Prof. Kurbalija pointed out that there is no better place than Geneva to fill this gap. Prof. Kurbalija also stressed that organisations should try to ‘walk the talk’ and take advantage of the low hanging fruit in terms of the availability of different datasets within their respective organisations which could ultimately provide valuable insights if combined into a single pool of data.
In order to support the Road to Bern process, the GIP will organise just-in-time training on data and AI for permanent missions in Geneva. The first session will be held on 10 March 2020. The second Geneva dialogue on ‘Protecting data against vulnerabilities: question of trust, security, and privacy of data’ will be organised on 13 March 2020 and will be co-hosted by the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) and the International Committee of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
Report provided by the Geneva Internet Platform