Data capacity looms over implementation of urban development goals

Even rich countries will struggle to monitor progress and inform policymaking. But momentum is picking up to fill this gap.

Sergey Nivens/Shutterstock

For residents of Rio de Janiero’s favelas, getting access to clean water is a challenge. Rivers and streams are contaminated with sewage, and in many places trash is not collected because of the way the streets are laid out, says Gilberto Vieira with Data Labe, a data laboratory based in Rio’s Maré favela.

“We have a problem here in Brazil: The official data is not so real,” says Vieira. Sometimes, the people and institutions that do monitoring and research can’t access the favelas, so “we think they don’t know our problems, really, inside,” he says.

Together with Casa Fluminense, a network of activists, citizens and researchers working on promoting equality and sustainable development in Rio, Data Labe is in the early stages of developing an online platform that will enable favela residents to report on water and sanitation issues.

The project recently won seed funding from DataShift, an initiative to build capacity among civil society organizations to make use of citizen-generated data — an idea that is quickly emerging as a key tool for keeping track of development progress.

Supporters point in particular to the need for citizen oversight efforts around two new global accords. First is the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the framework that came into effect this year and guide global anti-poverty efforts over the next 15 years. The efforts in Rio, for instance, could be boosted by SDG 6, which aims to “ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all”. And second is the New Urban Agenda, an accord struck at last month’s Habitat III conference aimed specifically at helping implement the SDGs in cities.

[See: Community-generated data crucial for implementing New Urban Agenda]

“We’ve got this huge, broad SDG agenda. The vast majority of developed countries are going to struggle to measure it with their highly advanced statistical systems and technologies, let alone the rest of the world,” says Jack Cornforth, DataShift coordinator. Most developing countries, he warns, are “still really lacking in capacity, both centrally as well as in various districts of countries at the local level”.

This means there is a huge opportunity for a collective effort between producers and aggregators of citizen-generated data and governments to help fill data and capacity gaps, and to create a more accurate picture of progress against the SDGs, says Cornforth.

Grounding in evidence

Wherever it comes from, the need for good urban data is clear. For cities to work efficiently and develop sustainably, policymakers need to create urban policies that are based on sound data. That was a core message repeated consistently at Habitat III, a global gathering on sustainable cities.

“We’ve got this huge, broad SDG agenda. The vast majority of developed countries are going to struggle to measure it with their highly advanced statistical systems and technologies, let alone the rest of the world.”

Jack Cornforth
Coordinator, DataShift

Yet there are remain many gaps when it comes the data required to inform policy and track progress on sustainable urban development. For instance, researchers with the Global Urban Futures Project found that over the past two decades, data on access to adequate housing have “simply not been collected in a rigorous manner across countries”.

[See: Can we actually agree on indicators to measure urban development?]

Citizen-generated data is just one component of the broader pool of urban data, which includes information from official sources and from urban researchers, that will be required to track progress on sustainable urban development in the coming years.

“The issue of data is fundamental. We are promoting the idea of having evidence-based policies,” Claudio Acioly, head of UN-Habitat’s Capacity Development Unit, said in an interview at Habitat III. “In the world of today, we should [no longer] allow policies to be decided and implemented based on assumptions that have no ground[ing].”

To help inform urban policy and build capacity within governments, UN-Habitat is working with its City Prosperity Initiative in over 300 cities. This tool uses an index made up of six dimensions so that governments can define targets and goals for sustainable urban development, particularly those of SDG 11, the cities-focused “urban goal”, and compare progress across cities.

[See: Two models for tracking implementation of the New Urban Agenda]

Yet data alone is not enough to inform policy. To make data relevant to urban decision-making, researchers need to be able to take different datasets and convert them into knowledge, said Anne Hélène Prieur-Richard of Future Earth, a global research initiative focused on sustainability science.

An increase in access to open data will help the research community do this. “We are in favour of open access to data,” said Prieur-Richard. “That is key for the future, for everyone to benefit from the data.”

Creating ‘data stories’

Still, hard data alone can be tough to digest. To help inform urban policy and understanding, urban data needs to be presented in a relatable way to that makes sense.

“There is a massive role for designers — information and interaction design — to find a way to visualize data that’s compelling, in very short, small segments,” said Timon McPhearson, director of the urban ecology lab at the New School in New York. “It’s about linking up scientists and the design community, and communications and press, to pull together the information in a way that is not just palatable but actually is motivating and easily translatable.”

[See: What do Quito residents think about Habitat III? This data project has the answers.]

Numbers need to be transformed into information that mayors will understand, said UN-Habitat’s Acioly. “I think we need to move away from the culture of numbers, of only metrics,” he said. “[We need] to translate what that metric means for public policies, and for quality of life. What is the impact on people like you and me if we live in the city?”

Incorporating storytelling into data presentation can be powerful, said DataShift’s Cornforth.

“The power of citizen-generated data isn’t limited to quantitative statistics,” he said. “A powerful citizen-generated ‘data story’ based on the experience of an individual can be worth 100 spreadsheets. But you need both, and it will depend upon the context.”

Monitoring, monitoring

Many now see it as a wasted opportunity if a lack of sound data and knowledge on urban progress were not available by the time Habitat IV comes around in 2036, so that stakeholders can readily see what gains have, or haven’t, been made post-Habitat III. Indeed, that sort of progress reporting needs to take place well in advance of that 20-year mark.

Monitoring is one area that fell short in the years following the last Habitat conference, held in Istanbul in 1996. As Citiscope reported previously, there was a “spectacular failure of UN-Habitat to do its operation on monitoring,” according to Joseph Schechla of the Habitat International Coalition, a watchdog group that advocates for the implementation of the strategy that came out of the 1996 summit.

[See: Countries made only marginal progress on urban commitments since 1996, index finds]

“We would have a different discussion today if we would have had clear monitoring of the Habitat agenda,” said Acioly, of UN-Habitat. “I don’t think people took it seriously … because if you would have a reality check every five years — it wouldn’t be very costly to do so. I think we missed an opportunity there.”

In that spirit, civil society groups now are beefing up their citizen-generated data efforts. Among several other initiatives, at Habitat III urban researchers called for the creation of a platform for the scientific community to input on policy and help track progress on the New Urban Agenda and SDGs.

With all this data-oriented work in motion, it’s now up to governments to get on board with collaborations to track and monitor their progress on sustainable urban development.

Stay up to date on global progress toward sustainable cities! Sign up for Citiscope’s weekly newsletter here.

Get Citiscope’s email newsletter on local solutions to global goals.

Back to top

More from Citiscope

Latest Commentary

Brendon Bosworth

Brendon Bosworth is a correspondent for Citiscope based in Cape Town.