Last week’s World Data Forum marked a shift in conversations around data for sustainable development. Battered and transformed by more than a year of lockdowns amidst the pandemic, the data for development community came together in Switzerland and online with an increased focus on the value of engagement with people.

Citizen-generated data (CGD) is information that individuals or civil society organizations produce to monitor and drive change on issues that affect them. (The word “citizen” is a misnomer as it excludes non-citizen stakeholders even though CGD refers broadly to data that’s produced by and for people as an alternative to other datasets.) This is in contrast to official data, which are collected, curated, and used by governments, and to private data, which are collected by companies from customers and clients. (For more about CGD, see this resource from the Global Partnership.)

Community engagement and CGD as legitimate and necessary sources of information to shape inclusive public policy featured prominently in conversations on and off stage. In the opening plenary, UN Youth Delegate Alicia Maldonado called for decolonizing data collection and institutions. Data are no longer just the concern of experts, UN DESA’s Maria-Francesca Spatolisano stated, but instead now “permeate everybody’s life and work.” UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed emphasized the need to level the playing field to empower people to use data for advocacy. Samuel Kobina Annim, head of Ghana’s Statistical Service, pointed to the transition happening toward non-traditional data sources, and WHO Director of Data and Analytics Steve Macfeely called for the “democratization of science.” The Global Partnership’s Karen Bett spoke about the value of citizen-generated data in Kenya’s fight against antimicrobial resistance in one of many sessions focused on unofficial sources of data for public policy. (Our partners at IISD published a summary here, and videos from the World Data Forum are here.)

All of this points to an important shift: We’ve moved from talking about whether we should use non-traditional data sources to discussing how to best engage data producers outside of the official statistics community. A particularly striking change is the acknowledgement that governments and private companies do not have a monopoly on data production and use and the recognition among policymakers that we must engage with civil society in all aspects of this work. This is an important step toward increasing data agency and engagement—two themes we’ve focused heavily on in the Data Values Digest.

Embracing community engagement has also brought a more nuanced understanding of the role and value of CGD. In some cases, CGD can provide high quality robust data for official SDG monitoring. In other cases, CGD that does not meet the requirements of official statistics may still provide a valuable supplement or complement to official statistics that’s essential for decision-making because it tells a story that policymakers need to hear. CGD is also a critical ingredient for government accountability when it operates at a distance from official statistics. By keeping that distance, civil society organizations can act as a check on government data and question the official narrative when needed.

It’s been heartening to watch this evolution and see CGD embraced by government policymakers and official statisticians. Credit for that goes to the tireless work of many advocates and organizations. Within the Global Partnership’s network, our civil society partners, particularly those who actively contributed to our early Citizen Generated Data Task Team and the Inclusive Data Charter, deserve credit, too. The work, however, is far from over, and I look forward to learning more and digging deeper into this together with you through the Data Values Project.