Special Edition - Data in SIDS  |  28 April 2022
SIDS are turning data into action to enable improved livelihoods in the ocean economy, decarbonize and spread an equitable energy revolution, and step in the 4th industrial revolution with informed decision-making. Central to all the integrated pillars of the UNDP SIDS Offer, Data has played a key role to support the structural, financial, and technological transformation necessary for Small Island Developing States to respond to the 2030 Agenda and the SAMOA Pathway. Data is also a part of economic diversification and represents an additional resource to be leveraged in SIDS’ transformative development. However, SIDS face challenges due to significant data gaps, and in the discovery, access, analysis, and interpretation of data. There is thus a necessity to improve access to comprehensive and updated qualitative and quantitative data, as well as to develop digital tools that take into account their specific geographic and socioeconomic considerations.

Open data infrastructure is central to accelerating the development of a data ecosystem in SIDS. Data is the bridge between the digital and real worlds, and thus further investment in data infrastructure is essential to make use of the advances in machine intelligence and computational analytics. Accelerating data needs to be done in parallel with the ongoing digital transformation and energy transition in SIDS, since well-connected and electrified networks are necessary to gather and communicate data in the spatial and temporal resolution necessary for data-driven policymaking. This data ecosystem in SIDS will continue to progress the use of machine learning and geospatial technologies - key tools to move beyond the classical interpretation and use of data for more advanced and nuanced development insights.

As we continue to advocate for data and digital as key tools for SIDS to meet the 2030 Agenda and SAMOA Pathway priorities, it is equally important to recognize both the limitations of data and the risks involved with digital transformation and the transition into a data-driven society. Because of the diverse and complex geographic and socioeconomic considerations of SIDS, challenges such as underrepresentation or maladaptation from data-driven analyses can often be amplified. To address this, SIDS are conducting data and digital initiatives with participatory approaches so the benefits can be equitable and inclusive. Data is also key to amplifying SIDS’ voices as they continue to shift global perspectives as stewards of the ocean. We must join forces with SIDS to strengthen capacity to benefit from the opportunities that data can provide through increased investment in SIDS’ data-driven transformative development.

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Keywords:   Rising Up For SIDS, data science, geospatial, machine learning, green recovery, biodiversity, marine protected areas, data infrastructure, disaster recovery, sustainable development, machine learning, gender equality, youth-led data, blue economy, digital transformation, livelihood empowerment, renewable energy
Leveraging Data in SIDS
Image: Pexels, Wikimedia, Archisen
Data provides a critical means for SIDS to create data-driven approaches to accelerate development in the integrated pillars of the UNDP SIDS Offer "Rising Up For SIDS" - Blue Economy, Climate Action, and Digital Transformation. The considerations below are drawn from the experience of SIDS as they innovate in utilizing data analytics to improve lives and livelihoods.
1 - Data Islands: How SIDS are turning data into action 
In the data science world, the concept of ‘data islands’ refers to those pockets of data distributed throughout an organization in isolated and decentralized fashion. These organizational challenges are solved through increased connectivity of data, centralizing data sources, and improving the basic network of how information and innovations are shared. This same approach is being implemented by island nations as they continue their acceleration in the digital age. SIDS are addressing their challenges of remoteness through digital technologies as they transform into connected hubs of innovation.
Foundational data infrastructure is crucial in enabling access to and sharing of innovations between and within SIDS. This includes national open data portals like those of Jamaica and Papua New Guinea, spatial data infrastructures, and data communities. Each of these play an essential role in making all other data innovations possible. A data community in SIDS is being enabled through the provision of digital tools, open data, capacity-building workshops, training curriculums, and finance mechanisms. An acceleration in support for growing local capacity of national statistical offices and bureaux will be essential to allow data to be integrated into policymaking and enable integrated analyses.

Several challenges continue to limit the value of data in governance including data ownership, privacy, and local capacity. However, a focus on data management is welcomed by nearly all local governments, as demonstrated for example by how Aruba has emerged as a model for sustainable development as it aims to share its expertise and experience through the creation of a knowledge management ecosystem. To deal with challenges of centralizing data to a single official source to be utilized across scales and institutions, the Aruban government passed a Ministerial Decree institutionalizing the National SDG Commission and the SDG Aruba Indicator Working Group (AIWG). This group released a baseline of 230+ Global Monitoring Indicators in 2021 and defined context-specific targets through its SDG Framework and Roadmap. These targets help to localize the SDGs and anchor them in a national framework that can support local Aruba policymakers to deliver on local priorities.

A participatory approach is key to inclusivity of data-driven policy - as stewards of the oceans, local communities have watched their coastline change over a lifetime and possess valuable knowledge about the local environment that needs to be placed central in the design of development in SIDS. With many SIDS having a significant population living within 5m of sea-level, integrating data-driven approaches into adaptation and mitigation efforts is essential.
Image: Pacific Community, status of Pacific maritime boundaries as of July 2020
2 - Building a SIDS data ecosystem through open data
One key constraint in statistical development of SIDS is the limited capacity of national statistical offices which restricts them from integrating data into their development agendas. Since SIDS can face challenges in achieving economies of scale, data science and automation tools can be powerful assets in enhancing local capabilities. The network of SIDS can be made more powerful when connected and innovating as a global island community. SIDS are also effective incubators for data innovations because of a strong political willingness since sustainable recovery is at the forefront of their development agenda.
Open data is a catalyst for digital economy in SIDS, with open data standards in particular playing a crucial role in helping solve the economic, technical, and legal obstacles for allowing data to become more accessible and valuable in the hands of the data community. But, open data needs to be developed in parallel with legislation that insures data privacy and security can protect the rights of individuals. Acceleration of capacity mapping efforts on research and innovation infrastructure, institutional and governmental capacities, and data openness will help advance data governance in SIDS.

Several recent examples highlight the advancements of data ecosystems in SIDS. For example, the Pacific Ocean Accounting Portal launched through a partnership between ESRI and UNESCAP to use geospatial data to analyze ocean ecosystem services including fishing, tourism, and shipping. Grenada has established the Caribbean Cooperative Monitoring, Reporting and Verification Hub to help Caribbean nations with their NDC tracking mechanisms by sharing data and raising climate ambition. As an example of holistically integrating data and digital technologies into SIDS, ITU has launched the Smart Islands programme to support a whole-of-government approach, built on four pillars to improve broadband connectivity, making broadband affordable, enhance digital skills, and provide digital services built into local knowledge systems.

Limitations in local data capacity cause adaptation projects to be limited to only rapid assessments. It is therefore imperative that the geospatial datasets and tools used for these studies are made increasingly open and available for SIDS to integrate into studies of adaptation and development opportunities. There is a definite need for a broad survey, compilation, and release of geospatial datasets that are global and publicly available with a coverage and focus on SIDS in order to provide cohesive data across each Sustainable Development Goal. 
Image: NASA

3 - Harnessing geospatial data for SIDS' development

By harnessing spatial data in creating policies that support innovative and accessible digitalization, mapping technologies allow SIDS to visualize and comprehend their complex and interconnected set of challenges and development opportunities through data. The SAMOA Pathway calls for increased capacity and financing for early warning systems, disaster risk reduction and post-disaster response and recovery, risk assessment and data, land use and planning, observation equipment, and disaster preparedness and recovery education programmes.

As geospatial data continues to improve in resolution, accuracy, coverage, and access, it has become an increasingly central part of policymaking and the development agenda. Nearly all data related to development has a spatial component and can be represented geographically. Geospatial information, one of the most content-rich forms of information, is a mapping of data across a 2D projection of the earth. At any place in the world, what are the vulnerabilities and opportunities in development? What is the level of access to water and energy?  What are the impending challenges of sea level rise to local infrastructure? These answers can be measured or modeled with increasing resolution and accuracy spatial datasets and satellite measurements become richer with new technologies and models.  
Ecosystem and resource mapping is entering a golden era where the technologies are well in place to create reliable global models essential to decision-making. One recent innovation is the Allen Coral Atlas which has used two million Planet images, ground data, and machine learning techniques to create the first-ever, high-resolution spatial and thematic global mapping of tropical shallow coral reefs. Such information is key for an informed management of these critical habitats. To support this integration of geographic information systems into governance in SIDS they are supporting Marine Spatial Data Infrastructures (MSDIs). National MSDIs support the collection and use of a wide variety of data in SIDS related to bathymetry, geology, blue economy infrastructure, marine ecosystems and climate, and oceanography. But for all this data to be actionable, it needs to be comprehensive and accurate. There is a need to close essential data gaps to make modeling efforts more accurate and relevant in SIDS.

Community mapping is one example of an efficient way to strengthen open data infrastructures as well as provide local information on demography, ecosystem services, and essential infrastructure. For geospatial modeling, SIDS often face challenges because of their diverse geographies concentrated in close proximity, with a scarcity baseline information necessary for training or validating models and research studies. SIDS also face challenges in topographic and thematic invisibility due to their size and remoteness, which will require accelerating innovative solutions and significant local capacity-building and data collection efforts.

Image: iStock

4 - How SIDS are leveraging machine learning and automation
Machine learning plays a key role towards monitoring progress towards meeting the SDGs and the SAMOA Pathway in SIDS by using satellite and street-level images alongside machine learning techniques to predict poverty, examining child mortality rate, women’s health, education, clean water, sanitation, and classification of land cover. Other cutting-edge implementation of ML and AI exist in fishery management, coral reef management,  and ocean pollution cleanup, all of which are significant to SIDS as Large Ocean States. As the realm of Machine Learning and AI mature with expansion of data and cloud infrastructure, SIDS have a unique role in innovative applications of data science in sustainable development. 

Many new innovations especially in the use of geospatial intelligence and machine learning for marine spatial data have evolved in SIDS, as they continue leading the world in action and advocacy. In Fiji, the Commonsensing Project is using satellite data to analyze and evaluate baseline conditions and to measure climate-related changes over time in aspects, such as deforestation, sea-level rise, flooding, land degradation, fisheries, coastal protection, and food security. Neural networks and multivariate statistical techniques are also used to forecast Effective Drought Index in Fiji. Machine learning techniques such as fully convolutional neural networks, logistic regression, linear support vector machine and Naïve Bayes have all been adopted in analyzing satellite images to identify deforestation in the Caribbean.  Another example is the implementation of a national flood forecasting system in Guyana which autonomously collects available rainfall observations and feeds into a machine learning hydrologic model to forecast floods. The Blue Bot project has taken a novel approach to use semi-autonomous underwater robotics to map Caribbean coral reefs using computer vision and artificial intelligence. One key area for AI is the marine data sphere, which is currently seeing enormous innovations in data collection, ranging from underwater or surface vehicles to collect data at depths and resolution considered impossible only years ago, to constellations of satellites collecting environmental and bathymetric data.

Innovations in cloud technologies and machine learning and analytic techniques offer enormous potential for making, but they must be matched by local technical capacity building as well as a larger analysis of the threats and challenges that accompany any endeavor in artificial intelligence. There is significant progress to ensure the safe use these technologies in policy and decision making, such as how Microsoft and IBM are revolutionizing  fairness and interpretability of AI models to university researchers further incorporating domain experts in their work. SIDS, with their strong willingness and commitment to sustainable development, are championing the expansion of interpretable, domain expert validated ML/AI systems to support various aspects of their development.
Image: UNDP SIDS Data Platform

5 - Towards a Multidimensional Vulnerability Index
As a response to the UN General Assembly SIDS resolution, UNDP has developed a Multidimensional Vulnerability Index (MVI) to reflect traditional as well as emerging risks, responding to calls from SIDS for the reassessment the eligibility for concessional financing beyond income level to accurately capture the vulnerability SIDS face. Using 11 indicators for 128 countries (including 34 SIDS), the MVI demonstrates that all but five SIDS are far more vulnerable than their income level would suggest. Furthermore, a simulation comparing SIDS to LDCs demonstrates that, if the MVI were used as a financing criterion (rather than just income per capita), they would save close to 1.5% of GDP annually on servicing their long-term external public and publicly guaranteed (PPG) debt. In the long-term, the MVI can be used as a policy planning tool, for targeting investments to increase productive capacity in SIDS, and thus increase their self-sufficiency and resilience and reduce their vulnerability to future external shocks. . 

Moreover, country-level indicators play a key role in vulnerability assessments, accountability and transparency, and monitoring development progress through the development of multidimensional indices used in structural reforms. For example, in an index of climate vulnerability for marine fisheries, seven out of the ten most vulnerable countries were found to be SIDS. The Ocean Health Index is an example of a statistical index that embraces the large ocean states approach by analyzing EEZs related to goals in coastal protection, fisheries, tourism, biodiversity, and other pillars of the blue economy.

The importance of developing a Data Platform to address the unique development opportunities in SIDS

As a new component of the UNDP SIDS Offer "Rising Up For SIDS", the SIDS Data Platform is a new digital tool for accelerating development in SIDS by providing policymakers, research institutions, and country offices with access to updated, standardized, and comprehensive data. The visualization and analytics features of this platform will help SIDS to respond to the SAMOA Pathway and the 2030 agenda by rising up to the urgent challenges of climate change and their green and blue transition. By focusing on the needs of SIDS, this tool has been designed specifically to feature datasets about Digital Transformation, Blue Economy, and Climate Action. There are three main types of data within the SIDS Data Platform, including country-level development indicators, geospatial data, and data on the UNDP portfolio of projects and investment in SIDS per SDG and SAMOA Pathway Priority. Automated analytics and machine learning tools within the platform provide development actors with the ability to explore correlation between datasets, identify high-risk areas within countries, and visualize regional development opportunities. The platform will have a public release in Q2 of 2022.

A new era of digitalisation for ocean sustainability?: Prospects, benefits, challenges

As the United Nations Decade on Ocean Science for Sustainable Development begins, this paper explores recent and likely future digital technologies - especially in the field of ocean observation - that will contribute to ocean sustainability. It examines advances that could lead to substantial improvements in the data collection and analysis of the impact of climate change and human activity on marine ecosystems, while also contributing to the monitoring and reduction of the ecological footprint of ocean-related economic activity. The paper also provides preliminary reflections on how the COVID-19 pandemic might affect digitalisation in the ocean economy, and what strategies could help support ocean research and innovation during and after the crisis.

Small island developing states (SIDS) and ICTs: Mid-term review of the SAMOA Pathway

This publication reviews progress in access to affordable and modern digital technologies among Small Island Developing States (SIDS), since the 2014 Samoa conference. It provides examples to demonstrate progress made, showing how SIDS are using ICTs to help drive sustainable development, and includes a framework for tracking progress towards a universal and affordable Internet. The publication identifies key challenges faced by SIDS in advancing connectivity and makes specific recommendations. The Statistical Annex features key ICT indicators for the SIDS.

Advancing Statistical Development in SIDS - PARIS21

A part of the PARIS21 initiative to improve literature on NSDS and identify ways in which the international community can help advance statistical development of SIDS. The paper examines the uniqueness of SIDS statistical systems and its vulnerabilities, existing challenges and opportunities. It documents lessons and good practices in statistics development in some SIDS countries as well as statistics cooperation strategies in Pacific and Caribbean regions. A number of recommendations are presented that adapts and complements the NSDS approach to better address statistical issues confronting SIDS.

Digital Transformation of Diplomacy: The Way Forward for Small Island States

This chapter seeks to examine the digital transformation (digitalisation) of diplomacy and how such digital transformations can be used to positively influence and improve a country's foreign services. The chapter further explores how the country's diplomats and their Foreign Service counterparts at Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) can utilize the tools provided by digitalisation to advance the country's interests. Given the critical intelligence data, diplomatic protocols, and confidential information exchanged at the diplomatic level between countries, it is equally important to evaluate and assess cybersecurity .

UN Secretary-General’s Data Strategy 2020-2022

Cultivating better approaches to using data will deliver better outcomes: Stronger decision-making and thought-leadership, greater data access and sharing, improved data governance and collaboration, robust data protection and privacy with respect for human rights, greater efficiency across our work, more transparency & accountability, and more relevant services for people and planet. As we advance, this Strategy also proposes basic principles for data action that promote care, excellence, collaboration, responsibility and stewardship by everyone, everywhere in the UN family.

World Development Report 2021: Data for Better Lives

Today’s unprecedented growth of data and their ubiquity in our lives are signs that the data revolution is transforming the world. And yet much of the value of data remains untapped. Data collected for one purpose have the potential to generate economic and social value in applications far beyond those originally anticipated. But many barriers stand in the way, ranging from misaligned incentives and incompatible data systems to a fundamental lack of trust. This report explores the tremendous potential of the changing data landscape to improve the lives of poor people, while also acknowledging its potential to open back doors that can harm individuals, businesses, and societies. 

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