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The U.N. Set 17 Goals To Make The World A Better Place. How's It Doing?

Mar 22, 2018

Forget all your preconceptions about how the world has changed over the past several decades. Here's all the data you need in a shiny new tool that tracks the planet's progress toward becoming a better place for everyone.

The folks at Our World in Data recently launched a first-of-its-kind "Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) Tracker." It compiles the best available data from the United Nations, the World Bank and other sources to create interactive maps and charts that show how countries have progressed — or regressed — on issues like health, safety, poverty and equality.

It also shows where we stand in light of where we hope to be by 2030.

The framework for this tool is a set of 17 global goals that U.N. member states agreed in 2015 to achieve by 2030. The goals are highly ambitious, from "end poverty in all its forms everywhere" to "achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls."

Under each of the 17 goals, there are also specific targets to be measured by certain indicators.

It's a lot, and critics have complained that the goals are just too lofty and comprehensive. Nevertheless, global development efforts since 2015 have been geared toward achieving these Sustainable Development Goals.

"The SDGs are promoted as global goals that are inclusive," says Hannah Ritchie, the Our World in Data researcher who spearheaded the SDG tracker project. "We want everyone to be participating and taking action. But how do you stimulate that without people being able to see where we are, where we're making progress and how far we've got to go?"

Fifteen years isn't much time to achieve the SDGs, and three years in, Ritchie has yet to see an engaging visual interface for people to explore all the available data under each goal. Sure, the U.N. has a database from which you can download spreadsheets of its data for most (not all) of the indicators.

"But other than academics, who's going to actually do that?" Ritchie asks.

So she and a coder set out to create visualizations of change over long periods of time.

For each SDG target, the tracker's maps and charts show whatever data is available on the world, a region, a country or any combination of those. Anyone who wants to take a deeper dive into the issues can follow links to Our World In Data's narratives on the topics. Users can also download data sets as spreadsheets, and whenever a source updates its database, the tracker automatically updates too.

"This is a novel presentation of data that we [may be] familiar with," says Tariq Khokhar, a senior data scientist and global data editor at the World Bank. "But just showing it slightly differently gives you a different perspective on it."

For instance, Khokhar and Ritchie were both surprised to see the results on traffic injuries and deaths. Goal 3 (good health and well-being), Target 6 aims to cut the number in half by 2020. Prior to the adoption of the SDGs, the U.N. had proclaimed 2011 to 2020 the "Decade of Action for Road Safety." Yet according to the tracker, road deaths — especially for pedestrians — are at their peak, with no sign of decline. Pedestrian deaths, for example, which made up nearly half of cases in 2016, have risen by more than 14 percent since 1990.

That change for the worse is not just in poor countries. In fact, the tracker seems to highlight how far high-income countries still have to go in some unexpected areas. Goal 2 (zero hunger), for example, covers all forms of malnutrition, including anemia, vitamin deficiency and obesity, which the tracker shows are prevalent in high-income countries. For example, while rates of anemia in women of reproductive age (15 to 49) have dropped globally since 1995, they've ticked up in one region — North America, from under 8 percent in 2001 to over 12 percent by 2011.

"It's quite striking that all countries have quite a bit of task ahead," Ritchie says.

That's why she's excited to see that it's not just academics, development experts and data wonks who are engaging with the tool. High-school teachers around the world are using it to teach their students about geography, climate change and development.

The tracker has highlighted at least one other striking insight: Huge gaps exist in data available to measure a lot of the indicators. For example, the most recent data available for Goal 12 (responsible consumption and production) is from 2010.

According to Charles Kenny, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, data collection is "slow and patchy." Policymakers, he says, need even more "fine-grain" information than they're getting.

"It's not country averages we want," he says. "It's county averages. And we don't have it. We have national data three years late."

He adds that, "in a way, it's another advantage of having Our World in Data do this project: It's a very rich resource that shows how well we're doing on the SDG targets we can track. [But it] points out that we can't even track many of these targets."

According to the creators of the open-access tool, that really is the goal — to help guide the global community toward better data, better policies and better lives. The same goes for the highly ambitious SDGs.

"There's no way we'll have met all of them [by 2030]!" Kenny says. "But that's OK, because as long as they got us closer — as long as they sped progress—they've done what they've really set out to do."

Joanne Lu is a freelance journalist who covers global poverty and inequity. Her work has appeared in Humanosphere, The Guardian, Global Washington and War is Boring. Follow her on Twitter @joannelu.

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