The Role of Big Data in Official Statistics

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This week, the 47th session of the Statistical Commission adopted the indicator framework that will be used to measure progress towards achieving the 17 Sustainable Development Goals and their associated 169 targets. 

With such a daunting task ahead, innovative analysis of new sources of information – or big data – have the potential to play a significant role in complementing official statistics. 

And indeed, the statistical community has galvanized around an increasing obligation to explore the use of new data sources to meet the society’s expectation for enhanced and timely information products to enable effective policymaking. 

This has been evidenced in particular through the establishment of a Global Working Group (GWG) on Big Data for Official Statistics in 2014, of which Global Pulse has been an original member.  

This year’s gathering of the Statistical Commission, which took place in the UN Headquarters in New York, included an informal meeting of the GWG to discuss progress and upcoming priorities.

Global Working Group on Big Data for Official Statistics: what and why?


The statistical community officially recognized the potential of Big Data, when, in March 2014, the UN Statistical Commission established a global working group mandated to provide strategic vision, direction and coordination of a global programme on Big Data for official statistics. The GWG promotes its practical use of Big Data, capacity building and sharing experiences, while finding solutions for the associated challenges.
Ronald Jansen, Chief of Trade Statistics within the UN Statistical Division – and one of the coordinators of the working group of the GWG – explains, “the GWG involves 20 countries and 10 international agencies which deal generally with how big data can be used for official statistics. It’s important to note that they are looking at this through a wider lens of various data sources. For example, it could be mobile phone data for tourism, or satellite imagery for agricultural statistics. Within the scope of the global agenda, it’s very relevant to understand how big data could be used for contributing to indicators on the Sustainable Development Goals.
The potential of new data sources resides in the timely —and sometimes real-time —availability of large amounts of data, which are usually generated at minimal cost. However, the statistical community is conscious of the fact that before introducing this data into official statistics and in order to take advantage of these innovative sources, including their application to the monitoring and reporting on the SDGs, it needs to adequately address issues pertaining to methodology, representativeness, quality, technology, data access, legislation, privacy, management and finance, and provide adequate cost-benefit analyses.
This is why the GWG Big Data for statistics was born. In an era of spending cuts and pressing development and humanitarian challenges, the potential rewards of using new data in statistics for development and humanitarian action are huge. 

Big data represents an opportunity to generate real-time information products, while official statistics bring depth of detail and representation through validated surveys and censuses. The joining of the two can deliver exciting results, but reaping the benefits is by no means simple. 

“That’s why the statistics community wants to work with Global Pulse – as they have experience in partnering with private sector partners to access big data sources. Global Pulse has experience built up through the Labs where testing has been done: what does the data look like, what can we do with it, etc. These things were not typically done in stats offices, but now statisticians are venturing into this space,” says Jansen. 

The Global Working Group is broken down into eight different streams that are somewhat independent but also have cross linkages. Within those, it examines five topics and three new data sources. In all of the task teams, the initiative is collaborating with non-governmental organizations, private sector and research groups. 

The 8 task teams of the GWG include: "Advocacy & Communication," "Linking Big Data & the Sustainable Development Goals," "Access & Partnerships," "Training, Skills & Capacity Building," "Cross-cutting issues," "Mobile Phone Data," "Satellite Imagery" and "Social Media Data."

For more information and reference documents, see

“The particular angle that statisticians are looking at when discussing big data is how it can be used to increase frequency and granularity to monitor progress on targets. So you wouldn't only have a county average on poverty for example, but also by sub-national districts, regions and disaggregate by vulnerable parts of society. That’s the expectation about big data and the Global Working Group is here to see how that can be achieved,” says Jansen. 

Combining new information sources and traditional ones can result in powerful outcomes for achieving the 2030 agenda more efficiently and effectively, and ensure that no one is left behind. This is the promise of a data revolution for sustainable development. 

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