A Data-Driven Global Sustainability Partnership

The impact of nearly 7.3 billion people on the planet is indisputable, but developing a framework for managing sustainable development is a daunting challenge. Countries have different ideas and priorities, and there hasn’t been a way to apply standardized data to put the issue into focus in a way that leads to actionable results.

“Without data, it’s hard to put your arms around these complex issues,” observes Daniella Ballou-Aares, senior advisor for development at the U.S. Department of State.

However, a new initiative called the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data hopes to transform sustainability from a vague and somewhat elusive concept to a data-driven framework. The partnership–which encompasses government entities, civil society groups, companies, international organizations and expert networks—launched in late September, with the U.S. as an anchor member.

The group aims to strengthen data-driven decision making in order to achieve a new set of global goals by 2030. The framework, known as Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), was adopted by 193 countries at a UN Summit in September. The partnership already boasts more than 70 members spanning national governments, companies and nonprofit organizations.

At the center of the initiative is a focus on data to help illuminate issues ranging from poverty and public health to climate change and gender equality. The end goal is to introduce more efficient data tools for tracking efforts and solving problems.

The UN member states have agreed to 17 core SDGs and 169 targets, and the partnership is now developing measurable indicators, according to Ballou-Aares. “The idea behind these goals is to set out long-term objectives on social, economic and environmental issues,” she explains. “We want to use data to know if the collective efforts of governments, business and citizens are achieving these goals, and also to build accountability and transparency into all the processes.

Developing Standards and Methodologies

Anchor members of the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data include Facebook, IBM, Nielsen, MasterCard, SAP and others with expertise in data collection, management and analysis. The partnership is currently developing standards and methodologies based on input from the private sector and government entities.

Key objectives include the following:

Increasing the availability of data in order to accelerate progress at country and local levels;

A framework to support the sharing of private sector data;

The ability to produce data for dynamic visualizations; and

The development of IT and other systems to foster increased and improved global connectivity.

The organization will tap existing data sources and networks, such as Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition and Global Forest Watch. It will take advantage of existing platforms and sources and seek to tie data together in novel ways, Ballou-Aares says.

Although the initiative is in the early stages, and much of the architectural and practical framework is just beginning to take shape, the opportunities are enormous.

For example, “With geospatial data, it’s possible to map out regions and overlay data about education, poverty or deforestation, and gain a much better image of conditions,” Ballou-Aares explains. “It’s possible to see how factors are interrelated and what type of infrastructure exists and what is lacking.”

The organization, which has the backing of numerous world leaders, will take shape over the next few years. “This type of data aids in driving policy and decision making,” Ballou-Aares points out. “It can lead to a more sustainable future and better outcomes for our world.”