Big data, that’s still a thing, isn’t it? Hurrah, then, for Cape Town and its convention centre, which is gearing up to welcome over a thousand international delegates to the inaugural United Nations World Data Forum this weekend.

The purpose of the conference is primarily to draw up standards for gathering and processing data relating the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and SA’s Statistician General and boss of Stats SA, Dr Pali Lehohla, says the country was chosen to host the conference partly in recognition of Stats SA’s work so far on SDGs.

Better data practices are needed, Lehohla says, to measure the impact of programmes designed to meet the SDG targets.

“We need capacity, standards and good governance,” Lehohla explained at a press conference ahead of the event in Johannesburg yesterday, “We need new collaborations… and to establish a community of trust. We must ensure that the systems that we put in place and the technology we use imbues trust.”

The director of the UN’s Statistics Division, Stefan Schweinfest, will also be at the conference. He says that advances in data gathering and processing, through low cost sensors and big data platforms, has created opportunities for the UN bodies responsible for the SDGs to better understand the problems they’re tackling and target their work more effectively. Right now, however, there are still huge knowledge gaps which need to be addressed.

An opportunity to boost capacity

“We are facing serious data gaps all over the world, and data that exists is in insufficient quantity or detail,” Schweinfest says, “The births of nearly one in four children under five across the world still aren’t recorded. Only 41% of countries worldwide regularly produce data on violence against women.

“This is an opportunity to boost statistical capacity all over the world,” he continued, saying that the exponential growth of data from mobile phones, new mapping techniques and citizen-generated sources can only be harnessed if there’s a “coherent data architecture” to work with it.

“It’s a challenging task,” he admits, “which requires the co-operation of many bodies. But there are opportunities to do things like map the movements of migrants using telephone records, map poverty with high resolution satellite imagery and use remote sensors to improve knowledge on African agriculture. We need to put it all together wth the official system to build the big data architecture.”

Building standards will also help to protect individuals’ privacy while enabling governments to access the data they need, Schweinfest says.

“Some researchers have appetite for making ‘microdata’ available,” he says, “That can be arranged but we are still running into challenge of protecting privay. We need rules around what can and can’t be released, and we want to harmonise those rules.”

Publishing data and making it accessible to the public will also be a key topic, Lehohla says, and statisticians should welcome the increased demand for access to their archives.

“Data’s value is increased via use,” he says.

Ultimately, Lehohla added, the hope is to extend the UN’s work beyond its focus on SDGs and into other areas of national statistics and data gathering. Statisticians need to “get out of their cocoons” and make the most of the unusual global focus on their work.

“Traditionally statisticians don’t like to be exposed,” he says, “The question now is do we have the ability to lead and disseminate data to the public in the most effective way?”

The conference kicks off on Sunday 15 January, full details are here. Ironically, the programme is only available in PDF format. (our mistake – see below)

If you can’t make it, there’ll be various Twitter debates and video streams using the hashtag #UNDataForum.

[Image – Pixabay]
Adam is the Editorial Director at htxt media. He has been writing about technology for almost two full decades now. In a previous life, he was the editor of PC Format and Digital Camera Shopper in the UK, before going on to work as a freelance journalist for seven years. His work has appeared in or on Stuff, The Guardian, Linux Format, TechRadar,, PC Gamer, Green Futures, The Journalist, The Ecologist and The Review. Adam moved to South Africa in 2012 and loves 3D printers, MakerFairs and tech hubs. He hates seafood. None of his friends remember this when cooking.