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Making the numbers talk: the Arab Development Portal

If we want people to care about and trust SDG data, then we need to make it more accessible and grow a new community of data users.

This is a guest post by Farah Choucair, Project Manager and Technical Specialist for the Arab Development Portal, UNDP Regional Bureau for Arab States.

How are we progressing on sustainable development? How can we do an even better job? And how can we make sure that no one is left behind? To be able to answer these questions, we need to use data and evidence. Yet, while dozens of great initiatives have emerged to improve the supply of data, far fewer have focused on its accessibility and use.

The Arab region is a case in point. For almost three decades, international development practitioners have sought to support governments in producing better and timelier official statistics. However, despite these important efforts, the World Bank finds limited progress in the region’s statistical capacities between 2004 and 2019.

One reason may be a lack of public demand, linked to distrust. A survey run by the Arab Development Portal in 2019 showed that only 29% of those aged 19-35 have confidence in official statistics. More generally, the 2018 Arab Barometer Survey found that almost two thirds of citizens trust their governments.

To help build trust, some statistical offices (e.g. Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Egypt) have recently begun to improve their communication strategies. However, these countries are the exception. In many other countries, data is still seen as very complex – the business of a selected few “data elites”. New laws designed to improve access to information do not seem to have made much of a difference.

We need to reverse this narrative and to enhance data ownership. After all, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development has thrown a greater spotlight on the need for better data – for statistics that leave no one behind, and that reveal exactly how development plans affect every aspect of people’s lives.

With strategic investment in statistical literacy and data awareness, we can create new data communities. Data needs to become everyone’s business, from journalists writing stories on how pollution affects health to parents seeking access to better education systems and entrepreneurs exploring financing schemes in their sectors.

This is exactly why we launched the Arab Development Portal (ADP) in April 2016. The ADP is a partnership of UNDP, the OPEC Fund for International Development, the Islamic Development Bank, and the Coordination Group of Arab, National and Regional Development Institutions.

The ADP has made life much easier for data users. In the past, conducting a 10-year time-series analysis would be an exhausting exercise. Data users would have to download 10 statistical yearbooks and manually enter the data in a user-friendly format. Today, they can generate any series from national sources in fraction of seconds.

We have also succeeded in building a strong new constituency of data users. In the past four years, we have trained more than 2,400 individuals to use the ADP to find, analyse, visualize and disseminate data-driven content. Our annual Visualize 2030 data camp has empowered around 180 young women and men to visualize data-driven stories, even in war-torn countries.  Just check out these powerful videos on the impact of war on education in Yemen and on street children in Sudan. Our young participants have received intensive multidisciplinary training that is new in this field: a combination of statistical analysis, data storytelling and visualization, and advocacy skills.

We have also trained civil servants on how to produce eye-catching infographics on their latest data and have trained journalists in communicating statistical findings to audiences with less technical backgrounds. This is just one way in which we have been able to show to data producers – national statistical offices, ministries and other public institutions – that our platform can create value.

Another challenge has been to highlight tlhe relevance of data to ongoing public policy debates, for example by producing content linked to trending topics on social media. The aim is to demonstrate that data and facts can help bridge gaps even in highly polarised debates. Improving the demand for data is no easy task. Some stakeholders think that focusing on demand reduces the limited resources we have to improve the supply of data. Our response is that the ADP actually creates value: we have built a wide network of partners and beneficiaries, linking producers and users of knowledge and producing data-driven content that a new constituency of users can relate to.

John Maynard Keynes theorized that demand drives supply. This may very well be true for new SDG data platforms: if we can only show people how data is relevant to their lives and offer them access to resources that bring data closer, then the supply of data will improve. This, in turn, will improve processes, policies and outcomes in sustainable development.

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