By Elettra Baldi
17 November 2020
Data and statistics will help us achieve the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) only if they are regularly reported and widely disseminated. A robust national reporting system is also a component of SDG target 17.18.1, which focuses on improving statistical capacity for monitoring the SDGs. Therefore, many countries have created SDG national reporting platforms to allow policymakers and stakeholders to obtain the data they need and to monitor progress toward the SDGs and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
National SDG reporting platforms are designed to store, manage, and disseminate SDG data and metadata. However, if not well designed, they may misinform and hinder intended data use.
Over the past year, Open Data Watch has monitored several national SDG reporting platforms and reviewed issues from users’ perspectives to understand barriers to data use in national SDG reporting platforms. We recently published a short paper of the main problems encountered when trying to access, search, and locate data on national SDG reporting platforms. The paper is timely as hundreds are gathering virtually for the upcoming Global Network of Data Officers and Statisticians’ webinar on National SDG Data Platforms.
Since National Statistical Offices (NSOs) are both the collectors and distributors of national data, they play a crucial role in developing national SDG reporting platforms. Here are three questions that NSOs should address when overcoming barriers to data use.
Can users access the national SDG reporting platform?
For many users, the first step in accessing a country’s SDG data is to visit the national SDG reporting platform and search for the desired datasets. When websites are experiencing an extended downtime period and slow loading speeds, users are discouraged and may turn to other sources or give up entirely. This is especially concerning for portal users with a weak internet connection. In addition, for datasets hyperlinked by portals, broken links are an additional concern.
To improve downtime, slow loading, and broken links, which all discourage visitors from using or returning to the portal, NSO’s can improve their performance by utilizing website monitoring tools, such as Google PageSpeed. This program helps them identify problems and make improvements.
Can users find the data easily?
Since national SDG reporting platforms contain numerous datasets, their interface should be easily maneuverable and allow users to locate desired information quickly. A flexible and comprehensive search function offers users a way to find content by searching for words or phrases without understanding or navigating the website’s structure.
Another concern is the interoperability of data. Interoperability is the ability to join-up and merge data without losing meaning. SDG indicators within the portal should be presented in the units specified by their definition. The portal should also provide raw data from which ratios, shares, or growth rates can be computed. We have also noticed that some SDG reporting platforms do not publish data from before the SDGs initiation in 2015. We recommend that all data relevant data be included, so users are able to conduct time-series assessments.
Can users understand and use the data?
Once users to find the desired dataset, the next steps include generating, browsing, visualizing, and exporting data. To understand the data correctly, users may need to know more about the data’s methodology and sources. Therefore, metadata that describe how the data were constructed and define all pertinent terms are particularly useful to users. With this information users can better frame their analysis, answer questions about its applicability, and occasionally find errors in data or report misuse.
Good visualizations increase understanding and facilitate interpretation of data. Useful visualizations can quickly communicate dense information and allow users to observe patterns easily. However, bad visualizations may distort data and can be misleading. We found that bar charts and line charts were the most common types of graphics offered in SDG portals. Currently, there are no standards or guidelines but Material, a design system by Google, provides some conventional methods and criteria for selecting and creating visualizations.
To ensure that users are able to download data, NSO’s must offer a variety of download options in machine-readable file formats. These include XLS, XLSX, CSV, or JSON, which allows users to process data using a computer efficiently. When data are made available in formats that are not machine-readable, users have a challenging time accessing and modifying that data, thus limiting its use.
A critical review of the design and performance of SDG national reporting platforms is needed to ensure that data are available and accessible to all stakeholders. The review process should be ongoing as new data are added and websites are upgraded.
SDG reporting platforms should make an extra effort to accommodate a wide variety of users, some of whom may have little experience with statistical data, while others are constructing sophisticated applications that depend on reliable access to high-quality data. NSOs should also provide space on their SDG reporting platform for user feedback to enhance their portal based on commentary from their primary audience. Taking these steps will help ensure that data are available on a portal and that stakeholders can use these data to achieve the promises of the SDGs.