Small island developing states target ‘data revolution’

Copyright: Commonwealth Secretariat/Victoria Holdsworth

Speed read

  • Small island developing states need better data infrastructure to track development
  • Some Pacific SIDS have fewer than ten national statistics office staff
  • Draft agreement calls for a programme to upgrade national statistical setups

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Small island developing states (SIDS) are trailing other developing countries in their journey towards a ‘data revolution’, say experts. Their comments come as a draft agreement to be discussed at the UN’s forthcoming conference on such nations is released, and includes a section that's aiming to ramp up their capacity to use data for development.

Factors such as underinvestment in statistics offices, inexperienced staff and ongoing reliance on paper questionnaires are felt more keenly in SIDS than in larger nations, say experts.

The draft agreement is part on ongoing UN discussions over how to achieve sustainable development in SIDS through partnerships, and is currently being negotiated ahead of the Third International Conference on Small Island Developing States in Samoa (1-4 September). It says that a “data revolution is required in SIDS to enable effective follow up and evaluation of implementation [of sustainable development], and to track success in attaining the internationally agreed development goals”.

It goes on to commit SIDS to: strengthen data systems; ensure continued ownership of data by SIDS governments; and establish information and communications technology (ICT) platforms to facilitate information exchange and SIDS-SIDS cooperation.

And it urges relevant UN agencies and intergovernmental organisations to help establish a SIDS Sustainable Development Statistics and Information Programme with an emphasis on upgrading national statistical systems and mainstreaming data collection and analysis.

“The most striking dilemma for SIDS is the size and capacity of their national statistics offices,” says Millicent Gay Tejada, project officer for Asia and Pacific at Paris21 (Partnership in Statistics for Development in the 21st Century initiative). “Small NSOs are not even able to do basic statistical activities, and this would be magnified tenfold for SIDS countries.”

Some Pacific SIDS have fewer than ten NSO staff — of whom only a few are statistics professionals — yet they are required to produce similar data to those of larger countries. Large-scale statistical activities such as household surveys and censuses are particularly difficult to achieve, Tejada says.

Partnership between SIDS could overcome some of these limitations, she says, citing the example of an online database of development statistics that Pacific island states share.

For Samantha Custer, director of policy and communications at AidData, a partnership that pushes for development data to be open, the draft proposal rings alarm bells.

“I was excited that [SIDS] see data revolution as a requirement to attain development goals, but there’s definitely an exclusive focus on supply, which is problematic,” she says.

Without an equal focus on demand, there is a danger that few people will actually use the data, Custer says. If this happens, there will be less incentive for funders to keep on backing it, she says.

But there are bright spots, too, she says. Eight Caribbean nations organised an open data conference last year. And one SIDS — Cape Verde — is already passing on its expertise in mobile data collection, which it started using in 2009. Earlier this year, it hosted a workshop for 80 African statisticians to explain how it is moving away from paper-based questionnaires.

“We have technical assistance from the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics,” says João Baptista Pina, director of information management at Cape Verde’s National Statistics Institute.

Cape Verde used mobile data collection for its 2010 census, and is currently using it for two “big, complex surveys”, he says. He believes that any country could follow his nation’s example.

“It takes good logistical organisation and investment in technical training — particularly in ICT,” he says.

Hiroko Morita-Lou, head of the UN’s SIDS unit, would not be drawn on whether the ‘data revolution’ proposal would make it into the final draft, saying that negotiations were ongoing. An updated draft is likely to be available by the end of the month, she says.

Link to draft agreement for the Third International Conference on Small Island Developing States