SDG reporting platforms: New progress and priorities
Reporting on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development comes with significant data and statistical challenges, and collaboration can help reduce reporting costs, duplication of efforts, and increase the openness and interoperability of platforms in development. Events such as the United Nations Statistics Division's January 2018 conference on National platforms for SDG reporting, where stakeholders reviewed best practices and assisted countries with the implementation of national reporting platforms (NRPs), are a good example.
The independent nonprofit Center for Open Data Enterprise (CODE) has been following the development of NRPs around the world as part of its SDG National Reporting Initiative. In collaboration with Open Data Watch (ODW), CODE analyzed existing national reporting platforms, which can be an effective method for managing, publishing, and disseminating data on the SDGs for greater public accountability and transparency.
BY THE NUMBERS
CODE analyzed 36 SDG national reporting platforms that were available online at the time of writing. Across the board, the analysis reaffirms that most countries around the world do not have publicly available NRPs. In addition, many of the existing platforms are not aligned with basic principles of accessibility, usability, and openness.
For each NRP identified, CODE evaluated several characteristics related to openness and usability, including availability of data visualizations, multilingual accessibility, open data licenses, download formats, and APIs. These characteristics correspond to the principles for reporting and dissemination platforms of multilingualism and accessibility (principle 3); data communication (principle 5); standardized interfaces (principle 8); and open data (principle 11).
(1) DATA VISUALIZATIONS
Data visualizations allow users to more easily and quickly understand and interpret data. These can include graphs depicting changes by year, or broken down by variables such as gender, subnational region, or age. Maps can help identify geographical variations in development, and dashboards can help identify data and resource gaps across SDGs. Though some platforms included maps and five to six data visualization options, many platforms did not have any visualizations or just had tables available. The lack of visualizations on many platforms could frustrate users and make it harder for some to understand the data. The graph on the right shows available data visualization features on platforms. Given that some platforms have multiple features, the total number for the features in the graph is greater than the total number of NRPs evaluated.
(2) MULTILINGUAL ACCESSIBILITY
The commitment to ‘leave no one behind’ recognizes that the 2030 Agenda’s goals and targets should be met for all nations and people and for all segments of society, regardless of ethnicity, gender, age, class, disability, sexual orientation, religion, nationality, or migratory status. Language accessibility is directly related to many of these concepts.
More than half of the NRPs reviewed were available in more than one language, which is a positive trend for accessibility. The most common language — available on 32 sites — was English. The languages that were available on these sites were mostly major national languages and not regional dialects, which could possibly hinder data use for some individuals with limited knowledge of English or other languages.
(3) OPEN DATA AND DOWNLOAD OPTIONS
Some users may want to download data sets to generate their own analyses or create new data visualizations. By providing a variety of machine-readable and other formats to download, NRPs can increase their utility and reduce the barriers to using their data.
Ten NRPs did not contain any options to download the data while another 10 only had one option for data download formats. All of the sites that had only one download option at least had the option in a machine-readable format, which allows users to easily process data using a computer. A higher variety of download formats can make it easier for the user to download the format that best suits their needs and requires less manipulating of formats, which requires more time and a higher technical capacity. For instance, someone may want to be able to download both the machine-readable CSV format of the data for their own analysis but also use the visualization on the page in JPEG format. Nine of the platforms studied provide both the machine-readable and image format downloads.
(4) OPEN DATA LICENSES
Open data licenses provide users with the acceptable legal terms for using data: Can it be shared and reused? Is a citation required? Can it be used for commercial and non-commercial use? The lack of a license or a restricted license (one that disallows certain types of use for political or other reasons) on an NRP can cause uncertainty and therefore discourage the use of data.
Creative commons licensing typically allows for use and reuse with citation (CCBY) but there are a variety of licenses that can be chosen that outline usage. However, less than a third of countries reviewed have creative commons licensing on their sites. The other two thirds have restrictive or no data licenses. This could hinder data use across the NRP sites reviewed and could be easily remedied by countries adopting a creative commons license for their data.
Application programming interfaces (APIs) enable users to automatically pull and use data on other websites. These can be used to reduce the reporting burden within government, by automatically updating data between ministries and sources as they become available, and can also be used by the public to disseminate data for use in applications. For maximum efficacy and interoperability, these APIs should use common standards, such as OpenAPI, and feature clear documentation. Though there are a multitude of benefits to providing APIs, only four platforms had APIs available for the public, which could limit the creation of potentially beneficial applications that utilize the data.
While there has been important progress made since the 2030 Agenda was adopted — with the publication of 111 VNRs and the development of new indicator methodologies through the Inter-agency and Expert Group on SDG Indicators (IAEG-SDGs) — most countries around the world have not yet implemented an approach to SDG reporting. To better understand countries’ progress and challenges, CODE has led and participated in sessions on national reporting and the SDGs with representatives from national statistical offices (NSOs) and other stakeholders at the International Open Data Conference (IODC) in September 2018 and the World Data Forum (WDF) in October 2018. The outcomes of these discussions, and other research by CODE and ODW, suggest several interrelated factors driving these trends in SDG reporting:
To facilitate implementation of the global indicator framework, all indicators are classified by the IAEG-SDGs into three tiers. Reporting on the tier I and tier II indicators for the SDGs presents a large data challenge that some countries are struggling to fulfill. Before reporting is possible, there may be challenges with creating, distributing, and collaborating on data sets across different government ministries and offices. Open data best practices are often not in use and much of the data is not stored in machine-readable formats or has not been digitized. Further, the lack of collaboration between ministries and the technical challenges of moving data between different IT systems for reporting can make the process time-consuming.
The reporting burden that countries face with national, regional, and international goal frameworks continues to grow. Though there have been attempts to map and streamline various goal frameworks together and utilize APIs and SDMX to automate reporting, these efforts are not yet in wide enough use to reduce the reporting burden.
Developing and maintaining NRPs can be costly, often requiring resources and technical capacity that can be scarce across governments. While several countries are benefiting from collaborations like the UNSD-DFID Pilot Project, or are leveraging regional platforms, funding for SDG reporting remains a consistent barrier.
PRIORITIES & NEXT STEPS
While there is no one-size-fits-all approach to SDG reporting, the findings from this NRP inventory analysis, combined with challenges and successes identified during events like IODC and the World Data Forum, point to several priorities and potential next steps.
For countries that are facing resource and capacity constraints, open-source reporting solutions and regional reporting platforms may provide two viable paths forward. Open-source tools and platforms like the Open SDG platform are free to use, reuse, and customize, and can include features like data visualizations and multilingual accessibility. By using these platforms, countries leverage existing technology and benefit from the collaborative, open-source process. In a similar way, regional platforms can be another low-cost option for SDG reporting. Many of these platforms, like the Africa Information Highway, feature best practices from the UNSD guidelines and principles. It is recommended, however, that countries using regional platforms also focus on linking them to relevant national websites, such as an NSO website, so that data users can more easily identify the information they need.
The value of data on NRPs is also greatly increased by the incorporation of open data principles and data interoperability standards. These practices have the added benefit of increasing efficiency and reducing the reporting burden, which is consistently noted as a challenge to SDG reporting. These principles and standards allow users to seamlessly access, integrate, analyze, and use SDG data for decision-making. The upcoming addition of open data to the fundamental principles of official statistics further supports the importance of this task. While some of these tasks may require larger capital investments and higher capacity, such as the digitization of documents or the creation of new IT infrastructure, there is potential for quick wins by utilizing open data licensing, changing government protocols to support the use of machine-readable formats, and leveraging meetings and new organizational structures to increase collaboration. Technical guidance for the implementing these principles and standards can be found in the Interoperability Data Collaborative’s guide — Interoperability: A practitioner’s guide to joining-up data in the development sector.
Collaboration is needed both within governments and within the larger global community that is supporting country progress on SDG reporting. Donors and international agencies should consider the findings from this inventory — how can they encourage and support countries that are already reporting on the SDGs to utilize more of these best practices? And how can they make it easier and less costly for countries to publish and report their data if they are not already doing so?
A year after the conference on National platforms for SDG reporting, there remain opportunities to work together and continue addressing these priorities. For example, Open Data Watch held a side event on open data and interoperability for SDG reporting with UNSD and Statistics Denmark at the the UN Statistical Commission. The High-Level Political Forum in July 2019 will be another opportunity to discuss progress on SDG reporting. Looking ahead, more needs to be done to highlight these events and share their key messages with a wider audience in order to move the field forward.
The above analysis of NRPs builds on learnings from CODE’s March 2018 report on Strategies for SDG national reporting as well as a number of valuable community resources including a list of country NRPs and country case studies curated by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE)’s Conference of European Statisticians Task Force on National Reporting Platforms.
The CODE team developed a basic methodology for the following analysis of NRPs using the guidelines and principles for reporting and dissemination platforms as well as questions from ODW’s Data Portal Evaluation Toolkit, which is designed to assess data portals on openness, technical features, and dissemination strategies. While the toolkit is not yet available online, interested users are encouraged to get in contact with ODW at email@example.com.
Using this basic methodology, CODE evaluated progress in the field to help start a conversation about priorities for SDG national reporting. Detailed information on NRPs around the world - including availability of data visualizations, open data licenses, and other key findings from CODE’s research, can be found in this inventory along with additional contextual information on individual countries. We welcome feedback and input on this ‘living’ inventory and hope to leverage the community to create a more accurate and representative evaluation of the space. We hope the findings from this research can be a tool for understanding the progress that has been made, highlight best practices, and propose potential ways forward.