FEATURE: Number crunchers in the spotlight ahead of UN World Data Forum

13 January 2017

The first-ever United Nations World Data Forum is set to kick off in Cape Town, South Africa, on 15 January 2017, with the aim of increasing political and resource support for statistical capacity building worldwide.

“When you are statisticians, you are not normally on the forefront of news,” Stefan Schweinfest, Director of the Statistics Division in the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), told a recent press conference ahead of the Cape Town Forum, which also aims to create partnerships and initiatives that harness the power of data for the public good and for the implementation of the new global development goals.

However, he said, the work of statisticians, characterised as not being “the most sexy profession,” is drawing a lot of attention in the context of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which was adopted at a high-level summit in September 2015 and includes 17 goals and 169 targets.

Last year, the global statistical community laid the groundwork for successful monitoring and realization of the 2030 Agenda, with the UN Statistical Commission’s inter-agency and expert group agreeing on 230 individual indicators to monitor the Agenda’s numerous goals and targets.

Describing these indicators as “the last missing piece” to complete the architecture of the 2030 Agenda, Mr. Schweinfest said that his Office – one of the largest divisions in DESA with more than 120 staff members covering the economic, demographic, social, trade, environment and energy areas – is facing an enormous task of responding to an unprecedented demand for high quality, timely and disaggregated data.

When you are statisticians, you are not normally on the forefront of news

According to his Office, more than 100 countries do not accurately count births and deaths. The births of nearly one in four children under the age of 5 worldwide have never been recorded. Only 13 per cent of countries have a dedicated gender statistics budget. Seventy-seven out of 155 countries monitored do not have adequate poverty data, although there have been clear improvements in the last decade.

Ahead of the Forum, which is expected to be attended by over 1,000 data experts from more than 100 countries, UN News visited Mr. Schweinfest’s Office for a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the work of those who deal with the numbers.

UN News spoke to several statisticians, including those working in the areas of capacity building, gender data and birth registration data, as well as those monitoring progress on global development goals and providing technical expertise to help developing countries conduct a household census.

Mr. Schweinfest told UN News that his office has a history of 70 years of work, where more than 100 statisticians are putting together data from around the world and helping national statistical systems to put their data systems together.

“One of our big work areas is methodology; we publish books that contain international standards, norms and recommendations. I’m very proud to say that most countries around the world follow UN standards, which leads to the situation where our data are comparable across the world,” he said.


Francesca Perucci, Assistant Director, Statistical Services Branch, is in charge of the work on the global monitoring of SDGs. “We work on global SDG indicators and on data dissemination,” she said, noting that the first report on implementation of SDGs has been published.

Although there are areas more challenging to monitor than others, such as measuring inequality or corruption, the global statistical community made substantial progress overall.  Her responsibility also includes disseminating data in a user-friendly manner.  For instance, some tools have been developed for data visualization so data are more understandable to a larger audience. 


Keiko Osaki-Tomita, Assistant Director, Demographic and Social Statistics Branch, said she, as an international advisor, has helped the Governments of Myanmar and Bosnia and Herzegovina conduct a national census. 

In Myanmar’s case, there had been no census for three decades. “I found it was very rewarding because I felt like my expertise can contribute to the very important statistical activity of the country,” she said, explaining that she was involved in the early planning stage of the census and even in the preparation of questionnaires.    


Youlia Antonova, Chief, Capacity Development Section, leads the Division’s programmes for building statistical capacity mainly in developing countries through such measures as modernizing national statistical systems.

“It’s a challenging but very interesting, I would say, very important job” particularly because national capacity building is very high on the agenda in the global statistical community following the adoption of SDGs, which placed enormous data demand on countries, she said.


Srdjan Mrkic, Chief, Demographic Statistics Section, said that around the world, 100-120 million children are born without a birth certificate every year. Civil registration systems do not fully function in about 50 per cent of UN Member States. Where the system exists, it does not cover the whole territory, whole population, and all layers of the population. 

“Civil registration, which is a routine event for most of us … is not a routine in many countries,” he said. In some countries and cultures, recording births is not a traditional way of celebrating a new life, and recording deaths is against their ethical norms.  There is also a lack of awareness that birth certificate is an entry into the legal world because it allows holders to get driver’s license and open bank accounts, among other things.    


Francesca Grum, Chief, Social and Housing Statistics Section, leads efforts to develop international standards and methodology to produce statistics on gender equality. For instance, her Section compiles data on asset ownership by women, statistics on violence against women, and time women spend on unpaid work, such as childcare and domestic chores. 

“These are critical dimensions of women’s empowerment, and data will be needed to ensure the achievement of SDGs, including Goal 5 on gender equality,” she said.  Some sessions of the upcoming World Data Forum will focus on gender data, she noted.


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