First United Nations World Data Forum in Cape Town

I recently attended the United Nations World Data Forum, held in Cape Town. The aim of the Forum was to identify how data can be used to achieve the objectives of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. This was a rare opportunity for data specialists from various disciplines to gather and discuss how to share and apply data. The gathering was opened Minister Jeff Radebe, Minister in the South African Presidency for Planning, Performance, Monitoring, Evaluation and Administration.

First United Nations World Data Forum in Cape Town

Minister Jeff Radebe delivering an opening address at the UN World Data Forum

A number of key themes emerged from the Forum. The first key theme that came out was the need to integrate data across disciplines. We will not be able to achieve the objectives of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) if we cannot learn to collaborate. Further to this integration was the need for the private and public sectors to collaborate. One such example of collaboration was the use of anonymised cell phone data to assist with planning and implementing primary health projects in Africa.

Another key theme that emerged was the focus on improving the visualisation, or presentation of data. Maps and graphs provide a means to illustrate summarised data, but it was noted that more work is needed to tailor them for their intended audience. Linked to this is the issue of improving data literacy amongst the users. Whilst we can improve the manner in which data is presented, we must also educate the end user on how to interpret the results.

I found that a common point of data governance was a concern that emerged during many of the sessions. We need to have clear policies that govern how data is used and shared. Whilst many institutions have policies in place, the policies may require greater harmonisation. Further, clear policies are required in instances where public data has been collected without the knowledge of the data provider, such as the anonymised cellular data. The data provider needs to be informed that the data is being collected and may be used for other applications. I foresee that this matter will gaining traction as we all are generating potentially useful data during the course of our daily activities.

There were many other points of interest such as demand driven product development, expanding our collaborations beyond our traditional partners, a rethinking of the way we undertake capacity building within the rapidly changing technology context, and the improvement of data standards to facilitate data sharing.

The event culminated in the launch of The Cape Town Global Action Plan for Sustainable Development Data. This plan identifies six key strategic areas for intervention that will advance the governance, coordination, innovation, capacity building, dissemination and mobilization of data.

The UN World Data Forum highlighted how powerful data and technology could be used in addressing developmental challenges – provided we use it correctly.

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