Shining a light: new ways to measure global development

The international community has come together to develop the Sustainable Development Goals – a  set of worldwide targets for assessing  human progress and eliminating poverty.  This month some of the world’s leading development experts visited ONS to see how we’re contributing to this and other vital international work.  Matt Steel was there to greet them.                         

 The SDGs – otherwise known as the ‘Global Goals’ are a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity by 2030. If they are achieved, it would mean an end to extreme poverty, inequality and climate change in a generation. Data are essential to achieving their success, especially as it will help us identify those who are most in need and ensure we ‘leave no one behind’.

 At ONS we are responsible for sourcing data and reporting the UK’s progress towards the global SDG indicators. At the last count we had managed to report data for 114 of these indicators– nearly half of the total. Of course this leaves us with a lot of data still to find. Of the rest, we are currently sourcing data for 86, while 34 are policies rather than indicators that need tracking. This leaves 10 where there are data gaps. Last week we published a report highlighting not just where the data we need are not yet available but also what our plans and priorities are for improving data coverage in the future.

The SDGs affect us all so it is vital we find a way of reporting our progress that reflects this. Our users include the UN, government policymakers, businesses, NGOs and research institutions, as well as the general public. So everyone can see the UK’s progress we developed an online platform  with our Data Science Campus. Rather than build something from scratch, we based ours on the open source reporting platform developed by the United States (US). We have since introduced new features including the ability to display disaggregated data for indicators. This feature is really important because it will help to prioritise those who are furthest behind and who have the least opportunity.

The thing we are perhaps most proud of about our tool is that it’s free for others to reuse – in fact, we really encourage this. Being an open source tool means the source code is available to everyone and is comprehensively documented. Instead of developing something in isolation this has enabled us to work as a community, sharing developments and improvements. Our tool remains a work in progress and we continue to collaborate internationally with the US Government and the Center for Open Data Enterprise to deliver further improvements.

We are also working alongside colleagues in the Department for International Development to ensure we use the SDGs to make a difference to lives, not just here in the UK but across the world. This includes a commitment to share what we have learnt and to help other countries to deliver the SDGs.

Bringing the world to ONS 

During last week’s Data for Development Festival we invited a delegation from our partner African statistical offices and from the UN Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) to ONS to learn more about the breadth of work going on including modernising data collection and the impact of data science. We also led an interactive workshop on our reporting platform for SDGs during which we demonstrated the development of a SDGs platform for Ghana based upon our own. It was great to discuss the challenges we have faced and are still facing in the modernisation of official statistics and the value of working together to support the global goals. In the future we will continue to work with our international development teams to share our experiences globally.

Our efforts to measure the SDGs are complemented by a number of other initiatives which ONS colleagues have been leading. This includes the development of the Global Platform which will allow National Statistical Institutes (NSIs) from across the globe to share and access data for public good.

We welcome your support and comments and you can contact us on You can also read more about the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals on their website.

Matt Steel is Head of Data Acquisition for the SDG project at ONS