Data with Soul: Strengthening the Evidence for Development

The American author Brené Brown once said, "Maybe stories are just data with a soul."

Nowhere is that truer than in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Commission for Population and Development, where countries will be discussing how to strengthen the demographic evidence base for sustainable development.

The global ambition of the 2030 agenda is to end poverty, achieve equitable sustainable development and ensure that no one is left behind. How? It sets out a series of goals and targets that each country must fulfil within the next 15 years.

Those targets are all measured by indicators. Their job is to show how much progress each country, and the world, is making towards its ambitious goals. But this agenda isn't just about measuring progress through collecting data. It's data with a soul.

For each proposed indicator in the new agenda on "met need for family planning," there is a woman in Guinea who, for the first time, is able to plan her future without the fear of having an unplanned pregnancy.

For every data point on early and forced marriage, there is a young girl in Bangladesh who has been able to stay in school because she has not been married off at 15, or younger.

For each increase in the proportion of women who make their own decisions about their sexual and reproductive health, there is a young woman in Sao Paulo who understands that she has the right to consent to sex and to protect herself.

The data gathered through the indicator framework for the 2030 agenda aren't just numbers on a graph. They are the stories of women and girls, of boys and men, whose lives are changing with each data point; the souls behind the numbers.

And that's why the upcoming negotiations at the Commission for Population and Development at the United Nations in New York are so important.

All the governments of the world will be coming together between April 11 and 16.

Their job will be to look at how to use data to decide what must be done to achieve the goals set out in the 2030 agenda. How do you use data to support development planning?

Governments will also discuss the importance of having universal registration of births, deaths and marriages.

That would ensure that every child is counted, every marriage is recorded, and that no girls are invisible.

Without good data collection, it will be impossible to know what programmes work and who is left behind.

Unless governments collect data disaggregated by sex, age, race, religion, income and urban/rural location, we will never know if girls have the same opportunities as boys in school, or if indigenous women are experience worse treatment in hospitals.

Until we ask the question - who is this helping, and how - we will not know if we are achieving the goals of the 2030 agenda.

Many will complain at the cost of the data collection. Some countries do not have strong a National Statistics Office and it's true that it will require greater investment. Some will argue that it's not necessary to collect data or study it in so many different ways or that certain types of discrimination are not relevant.

But without investing in data, without shining a light on to the lives, the stories, of individuals around the world, we will never know if our actions are helping or if we are leaving people behind.

As Arthur C Nielsen, a market analyst and founder of a global marketing research firm said: "The price of light is less than the cost of darkness."