Note 9/19/2017: Good data is essential to measuring progress on the Sustainable Development Goals. With the UN General Assembly currently underway in New York, let’s take a moment to review the status of the SDG indicators.

Our recent post pointed to the significant lack of data for the 230 indicators selected to measure the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Now we’re taking a deeper dive into the best indicators. These indicators—marked as Tier 1—have an established methodology and regularly produced data. Unfortunately, the ability to measure outcomes and results for even this subset of indicators continues to fall short.

The Interagency and Expert Group on the SDG Indicators (IAEG-SDG) classifies 97 of the 230 indicators (42 percent) as Tier 1. But despite this classification, even a cursory look at a Tier I indicator like indicator 1.1.1 (percentage of the population living on less than $1.90 a day) uncovers serious gaps in data. Indeed 37 percent of UN member states have reported no data for this indicator since 2000, and this includes both low-income countries like Zimbabwe and donor countries like the United States.

Intrigued (and perhaps a bit concerned), we decided to analyze Tier 1 indicators to better understand what the IAEG-SDG means by “regularly produced” data. Given the lack of data for 1.1.1—the leading indicator behind the SDGs’ call to “Leave No One Behind”—many more critical data points could be missing.

A quick note on how we did it. To evaluate data availability of Tier 1 indicators, we explored two dimensions: country coverage and frequency. Both are critical to data availability. For the purpose of this analysis, we define country coverage as the percentage of 193 UN member states with at least one data point available between 2000 and 2015. Data frequency refers to the average number of data points available between 2000 and 2015 for the countries with at least one data point. Using these parameters, maximum data availability would be 100 percent country coverage with a frequency of 15.93 data points (accounting for the creation of new countries, including South Sudan, Montenegro, and East Timor, since 2000). Our analysis only covers the 72 indicators for which there is publicly accessible, trackable data. Full data table, including links to the indicators, available here.[i]

Now on to the good stuff.

Assessing Tier 1 Indicators on Country Coverage and Data Frequency

We discovered a wide range of data availability exists with some clear areas for improvement. Here are a few Tier 1 takeaways:

  • Country coverage for Tier 1 indicators is pretty good. The majority of indicators (60 out of 72) cover more than 50 percent of countries. Some have limited geographic scope, like 3.3.3 (which refers to malaria incidence), so 100 percent country coverage should not be expected
  • Data frequency is highly uneven. Indicators tend to have either annual data or only one data point in 16 years. 10 indicators have only one data point since 2000 for countries with available data. While this sets a baseline, it makes it impossible to track historical progress. On the other hand, 23 indicators have 14 or more data points available over the same period, implying that data are collected and reported every year.
  • Some indicators are real superstars… Indicators with the highest data availability include 3.2.1 (under-five mortality rate) and 15.1.1 (forest area as a proportion of total land area), for which data are available every year from 2000 to 2015 in almost all countries. In addition, 17.8.1 (proportion of individuals using the Internet) was the only indicator to have 100 percent country coverage.
  • … while others are stinkers. Data exist for only 31 countries for indicator 4.c.1 (which relates to the proportion of teachers who have received at least the minimum organized teacher training). Other indicators are severely lacking in terms of survey frequency. In particular, data indicators sourced from UNICEF (5.3.1, 5.3.2, 8.7.1, and 16.9.1) all have only one available indicator for every country.

Informing Better Data Collection and Challenges Ahead

Our analysis also points to specific goals where UN agencies and countries should focus on improving data collection. For example, Tier 1 indicators for goals 9 (industry, innovation, and infrastructure) and 17 (partnerships for the goals) mostly score relatively highly on both coverage and frequency. Other goals don’t fare as well, with low levels of country coverage and sparing amounts of data for covered countries, like goal 1 (end poverty) and goal 11 (sustainable cities and communities).

Additionally, the low frequency of certain indicators may show how difficult certain data are to collect. It simply may not be possible, or desirable, to have annual poverty surveys to measure 1.1.1. In these cases, alternative tools should be designed to monitor progress with a requirement for more frequent data collection.

This analysis is intended to offer a more nuanced understanding of data gaps in the SDGs. As the UN, member countries, and civil organizations work to increase statistical capacity and mark baselines, it is necessary to have a clear picture of what official sources can and cannot offer global, regional, and national monitoring platforms. Only then can policymakers have a better sense of where SDG implementation might reasonably tracked and where other data sources and tools might prove useful.

Tier I Indicator Metadata

[i] Only 75 of the 97 Tier I indicators have publicly accessible data (including indicators that needed to be calculated). Along with three mixed-Tier indicators, we were able to track country coverage and data frequency for 72 indicators. Six of the Tier I indicators had accessible data but were not necessarily trackable (like 12.4.1: Number of parties to international multilateral environmental agreements on hazardous waste, and other chemicals that meet their commitments and obligations in transmitting information as required by each relevant agreement).