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Sustainable Development Goals and Open Data

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The United Nations (UN) has developed a set of action-oriented goals to achieve global sustainable development by 2030. The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were developed by an Open Working Group of 30 member states over a two-year process. They are designed to balance the three dimensions of sustainable development: the economic, social and environmental.

To help meet the goals, UN member states can draw on Open Data from governments that is, data that is freely available online for anyone to use and republish for any purpose. This kind of data is essential both to help achieve the SDGs and to measure progress in meeting them.
Achieving the SDGs
Open Data can help achieve the SDGs by providing critical information on natural resources, government operations, public services, and population demographics. These insights can inform national priorities and help determine the most effective paths for action on national issues. Open Data is a key resource for:
  • Fostering economic growth and job creation. Open Data can help launch new businesses, optimizing existing companies’ operations, and improve the climate for foreign investment. It can also make the job market more efficient and serve as a resource in training for critical technological job skills.
  • Improving efficiency and effectiveness of public services. Open Data can help strengthen healthcare systems by connecting patients to providers; promote education and ongoing learning; and improve food security on both a large and small scale.
  • Increasing transparency, accountability and citizen participation. Open Data plays a critical role in improving governance by exposing and preventing mismanagement and corruption. It also helps ensure environmental sustainability through transparent data that can help reduce pollution, conserve natural resources and build resilience to climate change.
  • Facilitating better information-sharing within government. Open Data can help improve cities and urban infrastructure. It can also improve resilience to disasters and ensure that essential resources will be deployed effectively in emergency situations.  
A World Bank report, “Open Data for Sustainable Development,” expands on these benefits  with a number of examples from around the world. 
Measuring progress on the SDGs
Open Data can help ensure that plans to achieve the SDGs are evidence-based, and that their outcomes are measurable. The SDGs are being launched with an emphasis on collecting data that will be extensive and specific enough to serve these needs.

The Open Working Group has stipulated that “In order to monitor the implementation of the SDGs, it will be important to improve the availability of and access to data and statistics disaggregated by income, gender, age, race, ethnicity, migratory status, disability, geographic location and other characteristics relevant in national contexts…”
Open Data can help assess the SDGs in three main ways. It is a facilitator of standards, a tool for accountability and an evidence base for impact assessment.
  • Standards. Open Data can help establish consistent definitions and units of measurement. Over time, as more adopt standards, collect and open data, this will result in improved data accuracy and completeness. By encouraging Open Data standards, development initiatives can build off of existing datasets, schemas, and databases and contribute to the broader evidence base. The UN Data Revolution program, which established the Global Partnership on Sustainable Development Data to support the SDGs, describes the need for data standards in its report, “A World That Counts.” That report states the need to “develop a global consensus on principles and standards: Establish a ‘Global Consensus on Data’ to standardize the principles in reporting, legal, etc.” The Open Data Charter, an international agreement that grew out of a G8 agreement, also emphasizes the importance of being able to compare data across sectors and countries through the use of structured and standardized formats. 
  • Impact assessment. Facilitated by common units of measurement, Open Data can help gauge the impact of development initiatives over time, geographies and topical areas. For example, Open Data can help establish benchmarks to measure progress against the SDGs, both within each country and between countries. It can reveal inequalities and disparities in income, wealth and access to government services and provide a basis for assessing progress over time. On a global level, this shared data also makes it possible to measure progress on those SDGs that require international coordination.
  • Accountability. By releasing Open Data about a full range of SDG initiatives, government institutions can show their commitment to the SDGs and hold themselves accountable for the results. This transparency and accountability can help engage citizens in working on the SDGs as well. 
Open Data and the SDGs, Goal by Goal
The test of Open Data’s value is in how it can contribute to achieving specific SDGs in concrete ways. Here is an overview of how Open Data can help achieve each of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals.
  1. End poverty in all its forms everywhere. Data is critical to analyzing the extent of poverty, understanding the determinants of poverty, mapping high-poverty urban slums, and ensuring that all receive essential services. By providing information about public goods and services, government ministries can help people in poverty gain access to basic resources and care. As these basic needs are met, Open Data about educational and job opportunities can help people achieve greater economic security.
  2. End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture. New companies and government services are using Open Data on weather, soil, and crops to help farmers make better decisions.  GODAN, the Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition program, has become a centralized resource for farming and food security. In different parts of the world, Open Data is helping to combat local issues as diverse as overuse of pesticides, erratic food prices and praedial larceny (the theft of livestock and produce). Open Data helps consumers directly as well: Government nutrition data helps families devise healthier menus with locally produced foods.
  3. Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages. The benefits of Open Data in health range from provision of basic services to studies that can have a significant impact on healthcare quality and cost.  New companies and programs in several countries are giving consumers useful data through applications that help them find healthcare providers and pharmaceuticals. Through programs like the Southern Africa Regional Programme on Access to Medicines and Diagnostics (SARPAM), Open Data is showing when medicines and services are overpriced and encouraging better competition and efficiency. Open Data is also a critical tool for fighting infectious disease, combining clinic reports with social, demographic, geospatial and other data to predict and prevent disease outbreaks and track and combat disease when it does spread.
  4. Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all. Government agencies and NGOs in many countries are now using open government data to identify locations where new schools may be needed and to assess, publicize, and ultimately improve school quality. By making school quality measures public, these organizations help parents and students learn which schools are best and put pressure on low-quality schools to improve. Open Data can also help ensure that schools have the resources they need and help them operate more efficiently. Data-driven projects have included an assessment of school sanitary facilities in Kenya, a platform to make buying school supplies more efficient in Romania, and a project to fight the corruption that was interfering with school funding in the Philippines.
  5. Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls. Analysis of Open Data can highlight shortcomings in the ways that education and health systems serve women and girls. Census, education, and health data from national statistical organizations can be used to develop indicators of gender disparities in these areas. In addition, Open Data on healthcare facilities and public health information can provide women and girls with resources on sexual and maternal health. A number of programs now use openly available health data to help pregnant women and young mothers, and have decreased rates of infant and maternal mortality.
  6. Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all. A first step is to map out communities to see where water and sanitation facilities are located and where they are needed, using GPS and satellite data. Open Data can improve water quality by identifying problems and prioritizing them for clean-up. In areas where water is scarce, Open Data can help predict and manage the impact of drought and help citizens know when water will be available.
  7. Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for all. Open Data from household energy surveys, satellite imagery and other sources can help governments and entrepreneurs prioritize investments in energy generation and decide where and how to extend the electric grid. It can be especially important in developing renewable energy sources strategically and efficiently. In India, for example, Open Data is being used to develop data-driven tools to forecast power output from wind and solar sources, making it possible to predict and manage these renewable sources for maximal output.
  8. Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all. Open Data can be a valuable resource (among others) for entrepreneurship, business development, skills training, and improving the job market. It can be the raw material used to launch innovative new businesses in all sectors of the economy, including health, environment, energy, finance, education, and others. The Open Data Impact Map, developed as part of the Open Data for Development network, and other studies have aggregated hundreds of examples of these kinds of companies. Established businesses can also use Open Data to operate more efficiently and profitably, which can ultimately enable them to expand and hire more workers. For example, many companies use GPS data to improve shipping and transportation, use weather data to plan their product inventories, or use census data to improve their marketing.
  9. Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization, and foster innovation. Open Data is a critical tool for rethinking and improving urban infrastructure. The concept of “smart cities” involves combining government-provided Open Data with extensive, diverse and timely data collected from sensors around the city that measure traffic, air quality and other factors. Open Data is being used to understand urban issues and improve urban planning, for example, through the work that the Urban Data Party is doing throughout China. Open Data may have the most immediate effect on transportation systems. In Moscow, for example, an analysis of Open Data enabled the city to avoid a billion-dollar investment in a new train system by revising its bus routes to serve consumers better.
  10. Reduce inequality within and among countries. Open Data can both reveal inequalities and help prioritize efforts to address them. Data from national statistical organizations and other sources is also used to calculate poverty levels, eligibility for nutrition and health programs, and a wide range of other social services. This data can then inform economic policies to best provide for those living near or below the poverty line.
  11. Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. Some of the most effective applications of Open Data  not only government data, but also data gathered from citizens  have been in identifying at-risk areas and populations, mitigating disaster risk and managing relief efforts. The organization Ushahidi, for example, has used data gathered by cellphone to track the impacts of natural disasters and help direct relief efforts to where they are most needed. Rio de Janeiro and other cities have developed data-driven programs and control centers to monitor and act on the threat posed by flooding and other disaster conditions.
  12. Ensure suitable consumption and production patterns. Open Data can be used to track consumer prices both locally and on a global scale and spot early signs of food shortages, inflationary pressures and other market problems. In many countries, this information plays a critical role in protecting the population from erratic market shifts and the resulting economic dislocation.
  13. Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts. Major national and international data programs are now addressing climate change along with other environmental issues. In the U.S., for example, the Climate Data Initiative is a cross-governmental effort to make data from a wide range of federal agencies available for analysis. In addition to providing critical data for predicting the course of climate change, Open Data programs are designed to help cities and countries become more resilient in the face of these changes and the floods, droughts, and other extreme events that may ensue.
  14. Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development. Data on fishing in national and supranational waters is essential to monitoring compliance with sustainable sourcing guidelines. Government agencies around the world monitor fishing, and by making their data open and available, they can increase pressure for compliance. Open Data on the marine environment can also help lead to the usage of marine energy sources such as geothermal vents.
  15. Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss. Open Data on both the state of the world’s resources, and the activities used to extract resources help both gage change in conditions over time, and assess the impact of practices such as mining and drilling. Open Data on energy industry practices help promote transparency through programs such as the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative. By making this kind of data open and available, governments and NGOs can help increase pressure on companies to operate sustainably. A similar approach is being used to fight deforestation. The World Resources Institute runs a Global Forest Watch website that the governments of Indonesia and Singapore are using to crack down on illegal burning by pulp and paper companies.
  16. Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels. The kind of government transparency provided by Open Data is critical to making institutions more accountable and inclusive. Several countries have used Open Data in spending transparency initiatives often for both their own internal controls and their international reputation. Brazil’s Transparency Portal, one of the best-known examples, tracks more than $12 trillion in government funds. The Participatory Budgeting movement, now active in more than 1,500 cities worldwide, gives citizens data about their city budgets and involves them directly in local budget allocation. Perhaps most important, open contracting making government contracts available for public review deters favoritism and hidden deals, and simultaneously benefits government, businesses, and investors. The Open Contracting Partnership is now developing standards for contracting data and supports efforts to make contracting more transparent worldwide.
  17. Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development. Open Data is now central to a number of organizations and initiatives that are focused on sustainable development. The Open Data Charter, which was developed from a G8 agreement, is an international mechanism for supporting Open Data efforts that can apply to all UN member states. Open aid data on developing countries can allow for more efficient allocation of foreign aid resources and support for sustainable development. Open Data is widely used by the World Bank, USAID, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, and other lenders to help guide their aid activities.
The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals set an ambitious agenda for progress on the world’s most challenging problems by 2030. To meet those goals, member states will need to draw upon all the resources at their disposal. Open Data has the potential to be a universal resource to help achieve and measure the SDGs. As countries around the world work to meet these goals, sharing Open Data and the methods for using it will accelerate progress and help to make the SDGs possible.  


Joel Gurin

Senior Consultant on Open Data

Laura Manley

Open Data and ICT Consultant

Audrey Ariss

Digital Development Specialist, World Bank

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