The UN 2030 Agenda drafted in 2015 emphasized the importance of collecting, processing, and analyzing quality, accessible, and reliable data – including non-traditional data sources such as geospatial, privately-held, administrative and citizen-generated data (CGD) – at local, national, and global levels to monitor SDG progress, inform decision-making, and ensure no one is left behind. 

CGD refers to data that is created or collected by individuals, communities or civil society organizations (CSOs) about their experiences or issues of concern, and offers reliability, contextual understanding, and empowerment by involving communities in the design, collection, analysis, and use of data that characterizes them. It provides a nuanced understanding of challenges faced by marginalized groups, reflects local perspectives, and can be used to monitor and advocate for social change. 

Citizen-generated data allows people and communities to gather and take control of the data affecting their daily lives.

 – UN Secretary-General António Guterres, World Data Forum 2023

Recognizing this, the Global Partnership has played a crucial role in providing legitimacy to CGD as a credible source of data for sustainable development and bringing it to the forefront of the development agenda, through global advocacy, local-global linkages, and institutional collaboration. This initiative achieved significant milestones, including the establishment of the Collaborative on Citizen Data* which is housed under the United Nations Statistics Division (UNSD) in 2023. 

An additional monumental milestone occured at the 55th session of the United Nations Statistical Commission (UNSC, 2024) when the Commission endorsed The Copenhagen Framework on Citizen Data** – a set of principles and guidelines to facilitate integration of citizen data into official statistical systems. This endorsement by the highest decision-making body for international statistics, signifies recognition of citizen data as a valid, meaningful and essential complementary data source for monitoring progress and ensuring inclusion of all groups in sustainable development, opening doors for citizen data to become fully embedded into national data ecosystems.

As a result of the Copenhagen Framework, use of the term “CGD” has evolved to “citizen data” as part of the move to integrate this data into national statistical systems in a standardized, quality-assured manner while upholding principles of transparency, privacy, agency and inclusion. Citizen data are defined as data originating from initiatives where citizens either initiate or are sufficiently engaged, at the minimum, in the design and/or collection stages of the data value chain, irrespective of whether these data are integrated into official statistics.

*The Collaborative on Citizen Data is an initiative housed under the UN Statistics Division that provides a mechanism to unite all actors interested in citizen data at global and national levels to agree on standards, build capacity, and jointly advocate for mainstreaming citizen-generated data into official statistics.

**In this impact story, we will use the term "citizen data", rather than "CGD", from this point on.

Global advocacy and awareness raising for incorporating citizen data into official statistical systems

Over the past decade, citizen data has not been understood or recognized as a viable data source to close data gaps, this is particularly so for the official statistical community. As the Global Partnership, we therefore took it upon ourselves to build more coordination and advocacy on citizen data. Our network members like Civicus, for example, conducted key early work to define citizen data as part of its DataShift program, which debuted in 2014, and was promoting the use of citizen data for monitoring and accountability at the governance level. 

Similarly, Twaweza has been a pioneer in producing and using citizen surveys to hold East African governments responsible and to push for citizen data as a credible data source. The Open Institute has been working to promote the use of citizen data to monitor and evaluate government programs and services in Kenya. Across Africa, organizations like Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT) and Kwantu have facilitated community mapping and open data initiatives enabling citizens to document their environments and lived experiences. 

Video Volunteers, an Indian-based organization, has built a global network empowering marginalized communities to report on local issues through video and community media, generating data that provides nuanced insights into development challenges. Through these diverse approaches, members of the Global Partnership network contributed to pioneering citizen data efforts globally and calling for its recognition as a complementary data source to support inclusive development.

To build global advocacy and collaboration, between 2017 and 2020 the Global Partnership brought together the Citizen Data Task Team, a coalition of approximately 40 organizations representing multiple sectors, focused on scaling use of citizen data for monitoring the SDGs by recommending appropriate citizen data initiatives for various purposes, providing guidance to stakeholders at all levels, and offering a forum for sharing experiences, challenges, and learning related to citizen data. The Task Team produced a number of products including a citizen data report and guide to establish a typology of citizen data approaches and examine their strengths and weaknesses. This task team became a mechanism for citizen data discussions with the official statistics community and other data producers. 

Strengthening local-global linkages, partnerships and support for citizen data

The efforts of the Citizen Data Task Team trickled down and increased recognition and support for citizen data at the national level and prompted further collaboration with national statistical offices notably in Kenya and Ghana. In consultation with the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) and CSOs, the Global Partnership developed guidelines for using citizen data in Kenya to harness the use of citizen data to fill data gaps for official reporting on the SDGs, while catalyzing conversations and deepening trust between CSOs and other members of the national statistical system (NSS). KNBS further developed a quality criteria for validating citizen data to guide CSOs on submitting citizen data in a standardized manner, and this criteria was integrated into the Kenya Statistical Quality Assurance Framework (KeSQAF). KNBS is now working with CSOs such as Uwezo and GROOTS, demonstrating how citizen data can be an important complement or supplement to official data. 

We also demonstrated how citizen data might be a valuable supplement to surveillance data in the battle against Anti-Microbial Resistance (AMR) in Kenya, given that official national AMR data, mostly obtained through surveillance systems, is sparse. Citizen data can help fill in the gaps, but it is also important to collect data that surveillance data can never capture, such as public knowledge levels, perceptions, and causes of AMR-related behavior. Various stakeholders across government, research, civil society, the media and other sectors, reported that their involvement in this project revealed four key benefits of adopting citizen data methods: building public awareness of key health issues; enabling inclusion of public insights to drive decisions; triangulating and deepening understanding of AMR prevalence, and facilitating collaboration between sectors.

In collaboration with GIZ, the Global Partnership further facilitated a peer learning workshop between Ghana and Kenya around SDG monitoring and reporting that spurred efforts in Ghana to use citizen data to address data gaps. This resulted in the collaboration supported by GIZ between the Ga East Municipal Assembly and the Ghana Statistical Service that resulted in the launch of two mobile apps, "CleanApp Ghana" and "Let's Talk," to generate data with citizens to address sanitation issues and report gender-based violence, respectively. The project aims to roll out these apps across the country to aid collection and use of citizen data as a complementary data source for official statistics and enhance statistics production for evidence-based decision-making at the sub-national level. 

Supporting the Ghana Statistical Service to pilot an entirely new and unconventional data collection methodology which was going to shed light on sensitive topics that affected the marginalized was for us, as GIZ, a joy as we saw ourselves as part of nurturing a workable solution in bridging the data gaps, particularly at the sub-national level.

[Citizen] data demonstrated huge potential in providing real-time granular data to track both national and global indicators which aligned perfectly with our objectives. Supporting the [citizen data] project was unquestionably a baby we held dear and had to see to its successful implementation! 

– Gertrude Elleamoh, GIZ Ghana

Strengthening citizen data skills for country partners

We have collaborated with our partners like the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT) to strengthen government and civil society organizations’ citizen data skills on the use of Earth Observation data collection and mapping for humanitarian, development and environment protection initiatives in Francophone Africa. We are working to replicate this training with other partners in Latin America. 

The COVID-19 pandemic also highlighted the importance of citizen data for monitoring and responding to crises. Governments, researchers, and civil society organizations around the world used citizen data to track the spread of the virus, assess its impact on communities, and inform policy decisions. We also published the Unequal Pandemic report – a resource showing the role of data collected by CSOs and communities to understand how people’s different circumstances (especially marginalized groups) were affected by the pandemic.

Institutionalizing the citizen data agenda through collaborative efforts

During the life of the Citizen Data Task Team, we convened numerous events and discussions nationally, regionally, virtually and at international fora such as the UNSC and World Data Forum (WDF) to shift attitudes and build support among senior officials from NSOs, other parts of government and the wider data for development community to regard citizen data as an accepted and legitimate data source for capturing the needs and experiences of marginalized groups. 

Side events at the 2018 and 2022 UN World Data Forums organized alongside partners such as UN Women and Paris21 emphasized the significance of citizen data in capturing information (particularly on marginalized groups), providing timely and granular data on community issues, supplementing other data sources, and shaping policies that are responsive to community needs. These events served as platforms to bring together representatives from NSOs, civil society, multilateral organizations, and the private sector to share experiences and build support for integrating citizen data into official statistics. The involvement of various stakeholders, including the Global Partnership, the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, PARIS21, and UN Women, underscored the collaborative nature of these efforts to promote the use of citizen data alongside official statistics.

In 2023, the United Nations Statistical Commission (UNSC) emphasized the importance of establishing a conceptual framework on Citizen Data (CGD), and supported the creation of the Collaborative on Citizen Data, serving as a platform for knowledge sharing, collaboration, and guidance development, including quality assurance. 

These initiatives aimed to foster a dynamic and inclusive data ecosystem, in line with the Human Rights-Based Approach to data and the framework of SDG 17 for sustainable development partnerships. This approach ensures that the Global Partnership’s efforts not only stay on the global advocacy agenda but also trickle down to facilitate implementation in countries. The Collaborative further serves as a mechanism to unify global and national stakeholders interested in citizen data, enabling them to advocate collectively, implement using a shared framework, and amplify the benefits of citizen data.

In 2023, the Global Partnership attended the Copenhagen Expert Group meeting on Citizen Data. The meeting was an opportunity to further exchange knowledge across countries and organizations and refine a shared framework on citizen data.

Subsequently, in early 2024, the UNSC supported the work on citizen data by the Statistics Division and recognized the potential of citizen data to address data demands and bridge data gaps for SDG monitoring while acknowledging associated challenges. The Commission welcomed the draft Copenhagen Framework on Citizen Data, supported its continuous testing and refinement, and requested the members of the citizen data collaborative  to provide practical guidance and encouraged an inclusive approach in its implementation roadmap. The Commission recognized the vital role of national statistical offices in assessing data quality and promoting greater accessibility and utilization of citizen data; and requested the Collaborative on Citizen Data to play a pivotal role in implementing the Copenhagen Framework and stressed the inclusivity of the Collaborative by welcoming members from diverse countries and stakeholder groups.

The Copenhagen Framework on Citizen Data, a resource developed by the Citizen Data Collaborative, will inform the way forward to:

  • Leverage the power of citizens in monitoring and implementing development frameworks like the 2030 Agenda and SDGs, ensuring efforts reflect the situation of all population groups, especially underrepresented, underserved and marginalized communities.
  • Encourage responsible production and curation of citizen data to help address problems that would otherwise go unnoticed.
  • Empower citizens to develop a sense of agency and representation as they actively engage in data production and harness citizen data for informed decision-making.
  • Increase the relevance and responsiveness of National Statistical Offices as data ecosystem stewards by providing an enabling environment for citizens, communities and civil society to contribute citizen data for sustainable development.

As the UN Statistics Division, we see the Copenhagen Framework as a guide to light the path for the data community, including in particular the National Statistical Office, to engage in citizen data. For me, citizen data is powerful in closing data gaps but importantly in helping us to meaningfully engage communities in data processes so that they can see themselves in data and therefore take action. The Copenhagen framework is a living document, we plan to test it out throughout 2024 and re-look at it again before the 2025 UN Statistics Commission to see what we need to improve or modify.   

– Haoyi Chen, Co-chair Citizen Data Collaborative, UN Statistics Division

The key lesson learned from this initiative is that investments in a rich data ecosystem that supports citizen data alongside official data sources empower marginalized groups, provide a holistic understanding of marginalization, and support inclusive decision making to ensure that no one is left behind in SDG implementation.

Next steps and implications

The conversation in the global statistical community has shifted from whether to interact with citizen data, to debating how to work with civil society, communities they serve, and trying new methods. The 2024 UN Statistical Commission's endorsement of the Copenhagen Framework on Citizen Data will guide countries and organizations in building systems, securing funding, launching initiatives and building skills to propel citizen data. Multi-stakeholder partnerships and financing will be key to achieving real impact. Festival de Datos 2023 showcased how partners like IDRC, Open Data Charter and FCDO are supporting citizen data innovation through funding, advocacy and capacity building. Civil society groups demonstrated how they are leveraging these partnerships to co-create citizen data solutions addressing local priorities.

It is important to remember that citizen data is more than just collecting data to close data gaps. It is a crucial way to engage people inclusively in data processes, regarding them as active data agents. Members of the National Statistical Systems (NSS) could adopt this approach to improve the quality of official statistics response rates. Secondly, when members of the NSS work closely with non-state actors including civil society and citizen groups on data, it further elevates the importance of data and subsequently increases resources for data. Lastly, the agenda remains the same: better data for better lives. When alternative data sources like citizen data are harnessed to close data gaps or to complement official statistics, it is the people who benefit the most, which really is the primary purpose for producing data in the first place. 

Looking to the future, we can fully harness citizen data to provide a more granular understanding of people’s lived experiences, uncover the stories that are hidden behind national averages and inform policy decisions; citizen data will continue to be relevant to hold governments accountable by producing data which is a true picture of people’s realities. With producers of citizen data and the official statistical community as data stewards, the credibility, spread and quality for citizen data will only continue to get better.  

Further reading