Claire Melamed

Executive Director, Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data

Data Sharing for Sustainable Development Should Not be a One-Way Street

Impact Investing

One of the data for development mantras is that we should ‘measure what we treasure’, rather than treasuring something because it is easy to measure. Data analysis is a key element of business strategy and operations; becoming a more inclusive business means thinking in new and diverse ways about how and what is measured and why.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) created a surge of interest in the data that would be used for monitoring, and the data that governments and others would need to achieve them. So far, companies have been involved in this conversation mostly as producers of data, and as developers of tools for analyzing the data. But this should change. How companies use data, and what data they use, is as much a part of effective strategies for social good in the private sector as it is for governments and NGOs.

Different metrics lead to different incentives. This is something Paul Polman of Unilever knew well when he famously dropped the practice of quarterly reporting on the company’s financial performance to instead encourage long-term thinking in line with the principles of environmental sustainability. Along with a growing interest in, and demand for, sustainability reporting, companies are using their own data to monitor their impact on a variety of social and economic criteria that go way beyond financial performance.

This can go beyond accountability to shareholders and become a chance to use data to engage with all stakeholders along the supply chain, providing information for companies to improve their business and the relationships on which it depends. 

The Brazil-based multinational cosmetics corporation Natura is doing just this. Working with Esri and SAP, both Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data members, Natura utilizes data to monitor and maintain sustainable practices throughout their supply chain. Natura staff collect data, which includes the locations of thousands of participating farms and over a million direct distributors, and combine it with business data from SAP. Using Esri’s ArcGIS platform, the data is analyzed and used to improve traceability and transparency in investments, production, and supply chain infrastructure. Esri’s platform makes the detailed information about the entire production chain easily accessible throughout the company, enabling Natura to track and meet its obligations to farming co-operatives, consumers, and shareholders, and maintain commitments to socio-biodiversity and environmental stewardship.

Good data is not just about looking backwards at past performance. When more accurate and timely sustainable development data is available, it can guide businesses’ investment decisions, helping them spot where good business aligns with positive social and environmental impact. Too often these decisions are made based on poor data, or have never been posed at all, with the poorest and most vulnerable often invisible from the data that companies and investors use to make decisions. New data analysis techniques and algorithms can, for example, use images of roof materials from satellites to map likely consumption patterns in a slum settlement that has never been part of formal data collection, or analyze likely demand for off-grid energy sources using maps combined with poverty data. This makes many populations visible to companies in ways they have never been before, enabling companies to understand their needs and the potential market they represent.

New technologies also make data collection on the economy possible at unprecedented speed and scale, helping to improve the policy environment for the private sector. The 2016 Future of Business Survey emerged out of a partnership between Facebook, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and the World Bank, brokered by the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data. Small and medium enterprises (SMEs) are the major source of employment and economic growth in many countries, but data on their operations and decisions is often scarce. Recognizing this context, and leveraging the Facebook platform as a new data infrastructure, the Future of Business Survey provides a nuanced understanding of the economic operating environment to help inform decision-making and deliver insights to help businesses grow. More, better, and timely information about SMEs is helping businesses, as well as policymakers and researchers, understand perceptions around current and future economic activity – perspective that can help SMEs succeed in the hyper-connected, digital economy.

All these are examples of how collaboration is key to making the best use of the new opportunities in data for sustainable development. This is the mission of the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data. We work in collaboration with more than 275 global partners, which includes the institutions that have the data, such as NASA and mobile phone companies; the companies and academics that have the technology and know-how to use the data; and the civil society organizations that, together with government, put that data to work on behalf of the poorest people.

Good data is not just a government issue.  If we increasingly expect companies to play their part in achieving the SDGs, they will need the right data. There is still vast untapped potential for businesses to use more, and better data to strengthen their socially responsible practices and programs, and to quantify the associated value proposition. Ensuring that this data is high quality, accessible, and interoperable will help unlock this potential for mutually beneficial partnerships. As private and public sector cooperate to glean new insights and build services, models, and approaches that are responsive to the realities of people’s lives, we will all become part of a movement that helps ensure people are not left behind.

This blog is a part of the November 2017 series on data for inclusive business.

Read the full series for insights on how the data revolution could affect inclusive business. Will it bring an end to the uncertainty of business in Base of Pyramid markets? Can it straddle the development-business divide? Will the data drive spurred by the Sustainable Development Goals be useful to inclusive business?