On the sidelines of UN Week in New York, the UN Foundation and Mashable host an annual Social Good Summit where an impressively long roster of speakers come to share and debate ideas over the course of mini-panels over two days. One of the central themes  at this year’s Social Good Summit is data. As “big data” emerges as one of the most powerful trends in the field of social science, leveraging data for better policy-making is quickly becoming a key priority to improve social interventions. In the context of a renewed global commitment to the Sustainable Development agenda for the next 15 years, here are some of the interesting themes discussed at the Social Good Summit around improving our ability to use data for policy making.

Count and Ask Everyone

In rich countries, such as the United States, there are census surveys every so often (every 10 years in the U.S.) which are designed to help inform policy. Who is living where, how rich or poor are they, what issues are they facing in their households and communities – these are all data points that are essential to not only devise policy but assign funding and resources to improve and refine programs, interventions and priorities in specific geographic areas.

However, while census activities are important and useful, not only is it an activity typically limited to richer countries – census surveys are expensive – but even in places where they are carried out, many people are left out. Surveys that focus on the head of the household may miss out on the female perspective on the issues raised, which may differ significantly from the head of the household’s perspective, as Emily Courey Pryor, Senior Director of Women and Girls Initiatives for the Women and Population team at the UN Foundation mentioned.

One of the panels this morning at the Social Good Summit exemplified this need very powerfully. During the “To Be Counted” panel, moderated by Laverne Cox, panelists discussed how it is very difficult to begin to address the issues affecting trans people when there is so little accurate, thorough data being collected on this population – including in the United States. When surveys and census questionnaires fail to ask – in appropriate ways – about sexual orientation and gender identity, the trans population becomes invisible. For example, as Laverne Cox mentioned, the CDC surveys on HIV transmission group transwomen with “men having sex with men.

One of the other panelists, Shelby Chestnut from the Anti-Violence Project, illustrated the point further. She explained how illuminating systemic issues, such as housing and job discrimination for trans people, will help us better understand how these things become a precursor to the very high levels of violence affecting trans people in the United States. Having a better understanding of who is trans, where they live, what issues affects their lives is critically important for policy makers who are in charge of developing new tools and interventions to improve the livelihoods of trans people.

Beyond needing data and numbers for evidence-based policy making, there is also a deeper meaning to the need to be counted. “When we are not counted, we are not given the legitimacy to exist,” said Cecilia Chung from the Transgender Law Center. Giving a voice to underrepresented, minority groups in society can be done through improved, more thorough data collection.

Improve the Use and Impact of Data

The concepts of “big data” itself and of the “data revolution” are by no means new. However, they present unique challenges in terms of how to translate them into actionable, useful tools for social good. Bill Hoffman, Project Lead, Information and Communication Technology Industries with the World Economic Forum hammered home this point about the use and the impact of data – yes, let’s collect more and better data, but it’s equally as critical to have the tools to analyze, parse and visualize data in ways that can meaningfully impact policy.

Furthermore, how can data be more human-centered, and how can it be used to give a voice to communities? In marginalized communities,  improved data collection and use has the potential to make a positive impact. Especially in light of the Sustainable Development agenda, which proclaims to leave no one behind, it becomes ever more essential to ensure that as digital tools expand, that they not only capture the reality of marginalized people’s lives, but that communities everywhere have the opportunity to participate in the process of collecting and analyzing data. Melissa Rowley, who leads Humanise, an organization which promotes human rights through tech & storytelling spoke about bridging the socio-economic divide through digital inclusion, and specifically by engaging communities (in her organization’s case, in Detroit) with the data that concerns them.

Finally, the key is to translate data – all of the disparate, enormous amounts of data generated everyday in our digital world – into actionable information, that can be used to improve people’s lives in concrete ways. Going back to the example of trans people, who are routinely excluded from public statistics, helping fight against discrimination, violence and inequality against this group starts by understanding the context and the reality they experience. With no data and numbers, evidence-based policy making becomes impossible. Government-mandated data collection becomes essential in the fight against inequality – as “unsexy” as that sounds.

Data is the life blood of decision making

“Data is the lifeblood of decision making” said Haile Owusu, Chief Data Scientist at Mashable. As we begin to tackle the Sustainable Development Goals, it is essential that data be leveraged to inform our actions and decisions. Shamina Singh, the executive director of the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth, talked about how companies such as Mastercard can play an important role in helping leverage data – indeed, Mastercard processes 43 billions bits of information per second, every day, and “can help work with partners to take big data assets to help solve big social problems.” She sees “enormous opportunity” to take data outside the “black box” and make it practically useful to do social good.

Being counted is a big deal. Being able to count everyone, and being able to capture the reality of their existence, is a significant challenge, but it is essential that we find new ways to do this effectively. “Without reliable data we can’t improve data use and impact,” said Emily Courey Prior, and therefore we can’t make the great, groundbreaking strides we need to make in the next 15 years in order to meet the Sustainable Development agenda.

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