Changing the world – the role of big data

On September 2015 world leaders reached an agreement of a universal world changing agenda consisting of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs, also known as the 2030 Agenda build on the framework of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and aim to end all forms of poverty, fight inequalities and tackle climate change, while ensuring that no one is left behind.

The new Goals are unique in that way that they are universal and call for action by all countries, poor, rich and middle-income to promote prosperity while protecting the planet. Unlike the MDGs does the 2030 Agenda take into consideration all three dimensions of sustainable development, social, economic and environmental and integrate these into the Global Goals.

Although the SDGs are not legally binding, all governments are expected to take ownership and establish national frameworks for the achievement of the 17 Goals. Each countries have the primary responsibility for follow-up and review of the progress made in implementing the Goals within their borders, which will require quality, accessible and timely data collection. Regional follow-up and review will be based on national-level analyses and contribute to follow-up and review at the global level.

In order to establish these 17 Global Goals and in order for countries to be able to measure and review progress, quality information and data is needed. Data are the lifeblood of decision-making and irreplaceable tool used to compare outcomes and changes over time and between and within countries, and continuing to do so, year after year.

The ability to capture, store, and analyze enormous amounts of human and machine data, and then to make predictions from it, is what’s known as big data and data are being created from more sources and at a much faster rate than ever before.

In the past, processing power was the limiting factor in analyzing large data sets. This has changed radically from the early days of computing and today, advances in computing power have led to massive improvements in many areas such as processing speed, data storage capacity, analysis of data, and connections between data sources and processors via the internet.

Since 2000, the work involved in monitoring the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) has encouraged increased investment to improve data for monitoring and accountability. As a result, more is known today about the state of the world and, particularly, the poorest people in it. But still huge data and knowledge gaps remain, and many people and groups still go uncounted. These gaps of information limit countries’ ability to act and to communicate honestly with the public.  For example, months after the Ebola outbreak it was still hard to know exactly how many people had died, or where.

Now, 17 years later, with even higher goals and a new ambitious world agenda for sustainable development requires another significant increase in the data and information that is available to individuals, governments, civil society, companies and international organizations to plan, monitor and be held accountable for their actions. Without high-quality data providing the right information on the right things at the right time; designing, monitoring and evaluating effective policies becomes almost impossible.


United Nations (2017) The Sustainable Development Agenda. (Retrieved 2017-09-28)

Feinleib, D. (2013) Big Data Demystified: How Big Data Is Changing the Way We Live, Love and Learn, San Francisco: The Big Data Group

Claire Melamed, (2014) A world that counts. Independent Expert Advisory Secretariat Group, Green Communication Design Inc.

Spratt, S,. Baker, J. (2016) Big Data and International Development: Impacts, Scenarios and Policy Options. Brighton: IDS.

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