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A sustainable approach to statistics and geography

EngagementDeep into a balmy Sunday night in New York, representatives from countries across the world came to an agreement on what the United Nations should be trying to achieve over the next fifteen years.

Named the sustainable development agenda, this agreement replaces the earlier Millennium Development Goals that were developed as part of the implementation of the Millennium Declaration** (which was adopted in 2000). The agreement itself is a series of 17 ‘goals’ that the UN would like to try and achieve by the year 2030. They are fairly ambitious but not particularly well defined, covering things like ‘ending poverty everywhere’, ‘reducing inequality’ and ‘making cities safe’.

So why does this matter?

Well underneath these ambitious goals are 169 ‘targets’ and ‘indicators’ that set out how the goals will be reached and more importantly, how we will know if the goals have been reached. That means statistics.

Although the sustainable development goals won’t be officially adopted until next month, we already know that we are going to need statistics not just on population, but from a wide range of domains across the GSS to allow us to monitor and report the progress of the UK in achieving these goals.

So the next question is why are the statistics being discussed at a global geography summit?

Well there are two reasons for this.

Firstly, we should not make the assumption that all statistics will need to be provided through surveys. If we intend to provide statistics on land use, deforestation, access to water etc then it is more likely that these statistics could be produced directly from satellite imagery or other sources of geographic information and the GSS will need to work closely with the geographic community to understand what statistics are required and what the best way to produce them is.

Secondly, the sustainable development goals include a principle that ‘nobody gets left behind’. This means that it is unacceptable for a country to say it’s met the goals at a national level if it’s failing to meet those goals at smaller sub-national levels.

This means that the GSS will not only have to consider the statistics that it needs to provide but also the geographic level at which those statistics need to be provided and how it can provide the statistics at that level. In some cases this will be easy where the data can be georeferenced at the household level (though it may still need some disclosure control) but there will also be statistics that are only available at the national level and we will need to find a methodology for disaggregating statistics.

Monitoring and reporting on the sustainable development goals is challenge for the UK but one that represents a real opportunity for both the statistical and geospatial communities to demonstrate how a collaborative approach can help support the UK’s commitment to the United Nations.

** Correction: This blog originally stated that the Millennium Development Goals had been in place since 2000. In 2000 world leaders adopted the UN Millennium Declaration at the UN Millennium Summit. The Millennium Development Goals were however developed subsequently as part of the implementation of the Millennium Declaration. GSS Website Team, November 2016.