Three Cheers for the First UN World Data Forum

By Claire Melamed, Executive Director of the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data

Since it was a UN World Data Forum, it might be best to start with the numbers. Eighty sessions over three days. More than one thousand enthusiastic participants.  Hundreds of amazing organizers and staff from the Cape Town International Convention Centre making it all happen. Tens of thousands of miles flown to get there. Cape Town, South Africa at a balmy average temperature in the mid-twenties.

But as even the biggest data enthusiast knows, numbers cannot tell the whole story.  And that is so true here. The Forum was more than a collection of important facts – it was how those numbers came together in a single event that made it the week that it was. I have three hurrahs to add to the many, well-deserved congratulations that have already been showered on the Forum.  

Hurrah for the past  

The Forum was built on strong foundations, and it was a culmination of the work that has been done over many years inside and outside the UN system. I was particularly aware of this since the Forum itself, and the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data, were both recommendations of the report of the UN Secretary General’s advisory group on the data revolution which I co-authored. That report, as well as the Fundamental Principles of Official Statistics, the work done in the High-Level Group, and the initiatives of many other organizations and individuals over the years have all led us to the place we are today. 

More recently, the heroic efforts of the program committee and the organizers in Statistics South Africa and the UN Statistics Division to bring the Forum into being in a more immediate sense were justifiably applauded throughout my conversations.  

Hurrah for the present  

It is impossible to get across in a single blog post the sheer diversity of the sessions, the participants, and the conversations during the Forum. However, the single drumbeat running through every session was encapsulated by South Africa’s Statistician General Pali Lehola, one of our hosts for the week. He spoke powerfully at the opening ceremony about trust, and trust was indeed the common thread.  

Firstly, the growing trust between different data communities. Relationships between statisticians and the Big Data providers, between civil society organizations and the private sector, as well as between governments and international agencies have not always been easy. This occasion was the exception: we were present and getting down to business, working out how to collaborate concretely. In and of itself, this is a huge step forward.

Secondly, and as anticipated, trust in the data itself. There was a focus on data that is useful, data to make lives better, data that can deliver results. This provided coherence to the week, and a sense of excitement as we learned something new about what is possible and what can be done.  

Hurrah for the future

The Forum was geared towards a strong action agenda. More than exchanging information and ideas, the organisers were rightly concerned with what would happen next.

As usual, a lot of the conversations were generated from the connections made in corridors, in bars, and over coffee – the thousand and one ideas and projects generated when you put interesting, like-minded people together for a few days. This is very exciting to me since that is exactly what we are all about in the Global Partnership.

Other plans came from specific sessions: We were delighted to help convene groups around funding for data, data to Leave No One Behind, and data interoperability for the SDGs (a joint convening with the UN Statistical Division), all of which are the beginning of new work to deliver tangible outcomes by bringing together various stakeholders around a common agenda.

All these pieces were given coherence and a global focus by the launch of the Global Action Plan for Sustainable Development Data, a collective commitment to work together to improve data and data systems. The Global Action Plan sets out a to-do list on sustainable development data for the next two years. We are going to be doing all we can to bring the unique network of the Global Partnership on Sustainable Development Data to contribute to this global effort, and to take forward the ideas and inspiration of the UN World Data Forum.  

We cannot wait for the next Forum two years from now in the United Arab Emirates!