The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
May 4, 2017

Global development demands a data revolution that will make change happen, not just track it

May 5, 2017

Cities in developing countries are growing massively and at a pace that would not have been thought possible a few decades ago. Accommodating the new, largely poor, urban dwellers may be one of the greatest challenges of human history.

A data revolution could support new ways of addressing this challenge. But United Nations agencies are so far just thinking about using data to track progress.

In 2015, the United Nations adopted an ambitious new agenda for global development, and its proponents called for a data revolution to help achieve its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The challenge of rapid urbanization is a priority in the SDGs, as it is in the companion New Urban Agenda adopted by the United Nations’ Habitat III conference in late 2016.

But to achieve the aims of these agendas, we need to use data in ways that will make change happen, not just track it. We need to get the data, tools, and training to the programs, people, and community leaders responsible for achieving the new goals. They are the ones whose work will decide whether the world’s urban future will be a story of inclusion and prosperity or a tragedy (over a billion people living in abject poverty in urban slums with scant water supply, sanitation, or other services—and highly at risk of environmental disaster).

The data revolution will not emerge automatically. Leaders at all levels will have to plan and work purposefully and strategically. Its development will be messy and will not occur evenly or coherently. Nonetheless, its potential impact on achieving development goals could be fundamental. Four priorities are the following:

Assign responsibility for data development and use within government. Because governments have accepted responsibility for achieving the SDGs, government CEOs (national presidents and prime ministers, regional governors, and local mayors) should place responsibility for the data revolution in their own offices, rather than state statistical offices. They should appoint a staff member, perhaps designated as chief information officer, to lead this effort, working with line agencies to accelerate data development and use in a way that achieves goals. The network of chief information officers, collaborating across levels of government could be a powerful force for change. The visibility and political priority signaled by locating responsibility this way might overcome resistance to creating and sharing data on performance and our communities.

Strengthen and expand government information systems and use them in decisionmaking. Information systems, especially at the local level, can be used to: (1) analyze problems and opportunities and set priorities for response; (2) assess the benefits and costs of alternative courses of action, leading to strategies yielding the highest payoffs; and (3) manage the implementation and operation of program plans; as well as (4) track performance.

This effort must also include investment in registries that achieve goals, especially benefitting the poor. Registries include systems that give people digital identification numbers, allowing them to establish bank accounts, apply for public programs, and engage in business transactions that would not be possible otherwise. They also include land registries, whose records on property characteristics and ownership are the basis for providing secure tenure and making all housing more affordable.

Strengthen surveys, but, for goal achievement, emphasize access to and use of the enormous flow of data the digital revolution generates. Censuses and basic household surveys are essential, but they are expensive and cannot provide the bulk of what a true data revolution will require. Efforts should stimulate and harness broader data creation as digitization spreads across all sectors in society. These efforts include the following:

  • Satellite images, used to monitor the pace of land development (slums versus other, city by city, subarea by subarea)
  • Aggregated social media data, used to provide early warnings of emerging public health problems (epidemics) and to assess changes in public attitudes that affect demand for social services
  • Real-time data yielded by smart meters and sensors in water supply systems, used to reduce water loss by detecting and correcting leakages and other means

Focus on improving data to drive achievement in urban areas. The United Nations estimates that over the SDG performance period (2015–30), developing countries’ urban areas will have to accommodate 68.8 million new residents every year. There will be zero net growth of the rural population. Because cities are where the action will be, mobilizing the data revolution should have an urban focus. Leaders in rapidly urbanizing areas will be racing to build institutional capacity to keep up in education, health care, infrastructure, water and sanitation, and so forth. Providing effective data systems support will be key to making that happen. Without proper institutional capacity, massive and painful deficits will emerge.  

Residents in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao are receiving easy access to potable water through the Mindanao Basic Urban Services Sector Project. Photo by Eric Sales/Asian Development Bank/Flickr Creative Commons.


As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.