Category Archives: information use

Sustainability by data revolution? Let’s not drown but drive


Suppose there’s a data revolution..

In case you haven’t heard: The UN is calling for a revolution! To be precise, a data revolution. Such officially prescribed upheaval always reminds me of the old peace movement slogan to “imagine there’s a war / revolution … and nobody shows up”. It turns out that this particular phrase is an adaptation of “Sometimes they’ll give a war and nobody shows up” which in turn is at times wrongly attributed to poet Bertold Brecht but actually traceable to Carl Sandburg. So much for wrong sources, an issue that occasionally afflicts sustainability data too. But what about the question of who will show up? Will data revolutionise sustainable development as its proponents hope for?

Having moved back to the Netherlands last year I currently enjoy the privilege to do research in cooperation with VNG International, the international cooperation agency of the Association of Dutch Municipalities. This is the perfect opportunity to restart blogging at regular intervals (inviting you to comment and to share feedback) and to dedicate this post to some thoughts about the global data revolution.

Let’s start with the positive side. The argument goes that one of the shortcomings of the Millenium Development Goals (MDGs) was untimely monitoring information – too few and too unreliable statistics that come too late (global compilation often lagging several years) to be useful for effective management. Therefore, the UN wants to complement the forthcoming Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with a beefed up international monitoring system. The aim is annual updates of all major stats. Thank goodness the SDG’s will also improve on what gets measured, reducing the use of dangerous proxy indicators (such as the MDG’s lazy equation of drinking water with any kind of tap water, contaminated or not – cf my previous post).

Map of PM2.5 according to NASA

Further, there is evidence that novel data on sustainability relevant issues can be tremendously powerful – consider the case of air quality in Beijing where the US embassy pioneered the publication of data which seems to have impacted the political and public agenda in China. I also have no doubt that new data developments (big data, open data, surveillance known and unknown to us) will revolutionise our lives in ways that we can’t yet imagine.

However, will data really lead by itself to more sustainable development? Some people seem to be incredibly optimistic and tout the very existence of (standardised, city-based) indicator data as “game changers“. I have to admit that I used to be equally enthousiastic about data production but now consider this naïf and doomed to lead to disappointment. Consider the case of air quality in Europe. Plenty of cities struggle with unhealthy pollution levels but it appears that it’s neither the publication of data (e.g. on Amsterdam) nor of city rankings that’s causing inmediate change – what’s causing action is the threat of legal action and especially of financial fines from the EU. Further, it seems that various sustainability monitoring projects once started enthousiastically in European cities have ebbed away – presumably because they failed to influence public policy and agendas in the way their initiators had hoped for.

So why does air quality data seem to be directly impactful in one case but not another? A quick consideration of the context suggests that there are differences in absoludata overloadte levels of pollution encountered in Chinese and European cities. Another evident difference is the level of available data – limited in one case, abundant in another. In some places there is little competition for sustainability relevant data, in some there is a lot, and many experience (just as with food) the co-existence of hunger and overflow. To just advocate for ever more data is arguably a waste of resources and even counterproductive. Especially in already data rich settings there’s a real risk of data overload!

Put differently: What type of new data (and to be fair to fans of benchmarks: of comparisons) would be needed to make a difference to your municipality? What type of data are we currently lacking to revolutionise or “sustainablise”..?  The measurement of subjective wellbeing is one potential answer in terms of an alternative and additional metric that is much needed. A few years ago this idea was popularised by various reports (e.g. NEF, Stiglitz-Sen-Fitoussi, OECD, UN General Assembly) yet it is unfortunately not prominent in the (very abundant) set of SDGs that now dominate the UN’s agenda. In most other regards and most rich countries, however, there no scarcity of sustainability-relevant data. There, the challenge is much more about the use of funneldata by various stakeholders including decision-makers and the public. In this context, less can be more, as evidenced by the search for “headline” or “key” indicators designed to funnel attention.

To sum up, the UN’s effort to foster a ‘data revolution’ is generally laudable. So is the use of ‘revolutionary rhetoric’ a sales tactic to muster political and financial support for something as “boring” as statistical systems. However, it would be foolish to just rely on the old saw of “what gets measured gets managed“. Instead, we need to complement the strive for data with a strive for knowledge. How can one drive the actual uptake and use of sustainability-relevant data?

Regarding sustainability information, a group of Finnish researchers (in this article by Lyytimäki et al) have suggested to distinguish use, non-use and misuse of indicators. In below table they’re presenting a couple of interesting examples.

use nonuse misuse

I’m planning to employ this in my current research with VNG International about municipal sustainability reports – stay tuned for more posts on this matter. This way we can hopefully make a little practical contribution to a positive data revolution.