Explainer: The challenges of measuring cities’ progress on the Sustainable Development Goals

Goal 11 of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals specifically aims to build cities that are “inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”. Measuring progress towards this ambitious undertaking is important, but the question is, how?

Cities have a huge role to play in achieving the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs.

Intended to coordinate development efforts globally through 2030, the goals are aimed at alleviating poverty, protecting natural resources and reducing inequality.

Every one of the 17 SDGs has something to do with work happening at the city level. One of them — Goal 11 — specifically aims to build cities that are “inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”.

It’s an ambitious undertaking. But how will progress be measured so that leaders of city, regional and national governments, NGOs, development banks, businesses and philanthropies know if their efforts are moving in the right direction?

There are significant challenges ahead in terms of collecting data that all these stakeholders will find useful. There’s also significant opportunities to do it using new technologies and new partnerships that have never been leveraged.

Here’s an overview of some of the major questions and issues.

What data needs come with the SDGs?

From a cities perspective, the SDGs will require rigorous data collection and analysis on almost all components of urban living — population, access to public transport and adequate housing, sanitation, public space and much more.

The United Nations has devised a framework for monitoring the SDGs. Each of the 17 goals has been broken down into a set of targets. Progress on those targets will be measured by “indicators” — specific metrics related to those targets.

For example, SDG 11 — the one focused entirely on cities — is made up of 10 targets, with 15 proposed indicators. One of those targets is to “ensure access for all to adequate, safe and affordable housing and basic services and upgrade slums” by 2030.

The indicator used to measure progress on that aim is the proportion of urban population living in slums, informal settlements or inadequate housing.

While a full menu of SDG indicators has been proposed at the global level, they remain a work in progress overseen by a technical group called the Inter-Agency Expert Group on SDG Indicators.

Further, the SDG framework has been set up in order to explicitly urge national governments to adopt locally feasible indicators wherever possible.

Does all this information exist?

In some cases yes but in many cases no. Unfortunately, there are still huge data gaps when it comes to measuring progress on sustainable development, particularly in cities of the developing world.

In many cases, basic information is simply unavailable. For example, as many as 100 countries, mostly in the Global South, do not yet keep accurate record of births and deaths.

Likewise, there is a gap when it comes to data on access to adequate housing, which has not been collected in “a rigorous manner across countries” over the past 20 years, according to the Global Urban Futures Project.

On top of that, official data on informal settlements — such as accurate population numbers, access to services and settlement boundaries — is often lacking in detail or not available.

Finally, the SDGs include many areas in which governments have never previously attempted to keep accurate data — around public space, for instance.

While this is a particular issue for developing countries, it remains an obstacle in richer countries as well. In part, that is what has excited supporters of this new framework, but it also has slowed down global agreement on how to measure several aspects of urban development.

Regardless of what information exists now, countries will be expected to report on steps and progress they’re making on all aspects of the SDGs on a regular basis.

That formal mechanism, which takes place yearly in July, is called the High-Level Political Forum. In 2018, the HLPF will focus in particular on Goal 11 and urban development.

Are there data challenges specifically related to cities?

Much of the work on development data globally is based on national sample surveys. That often makes it difficult to zoom in on indicators that are more specific to cities or metropolitan areas.

For example, in many countries it can be hard to find city-level data to measure the proportion of population below the international poverty line, access to electricity or the proportion of urban population living in slums.

The technical term for this is disaggregation — and within the SDGs framework, the problem is not limited to cities. There are similar challenges around breaking down national-level data around dimensions such as age, sex, income, race, migratory status and disability. Without properly disaggregated data the SDGs’ noble aim of leaving “no one behind” will be untenable.

As yet, however, this is a contentious and unresolved topic at the U. N. level, where national governments have tended to focus on data-gathering through a national lens.

Even once national officials do start to look more closely at disaggregating their metrics to cities, that will only lay bare the glaring problem of data capacity at the city level.

Why is data so important?

Without accurate, reliable data, leaders at all levels won’t be able to measure their progress (or lack thereof) on sustainable urban development. And neither will civil society, researchers, citizens and others who want to hold their governments to account.

Second, sound data is needed to make good decisions. When national leaders are presented with questions about where to allocate funding, resources and infrastructure, good data on where the greatest needs are in cities can help point to the answers.

Better data benefits city leaders, as well. It gives them the knowledge they need to manage services more efficiently and equitably. Further, the private sector is more likely to invest in cities that have a data-driven and transparent understanding of their strengths and weaknesses, and where they are working to improve.

What’s happening to plug these data gaps?

Building capacity is part of the answer. In January 2017, the UN convened the first ever World Data Forum, in Cape Town, South Africa. At that summit, governments pledged to improve statistical systems at the national and local levels to enhance data capacity.

This plan asks governments to commit to innovating and modernizing national statistical systems and bolstering infrastructure and capacity to support statistical requirements at all levels of government. It also asks countries to increase their dissemination of data on sustainable development and to build partnerships for improved data in this area.

In addition, the UN has called for a “data revolution” to transform data collection and analysis around the world. The idea places particular importance on the rapid development of technology and data-gathering tools, such as mobile phones and sensors that monitor things like air quality and traffic.

Framers of this “revolution” say it poses an opportunity to combine new and traditional types of data to produce better, more detailed and relevant knowledge to monitor what is happening on the ground, including in cities.

At the same time, many are hoping this new approach will lead to more sharing of data, with moves toward making information on public matters and public funding more open and accessible — while not invading people’s privacy.

This story was published with permission from Citiscope, a nonprofit news outlet that covers innovations in cities around the world. More at Citiscope.org.

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