How sustainable is the world and how can we know?

Fiona Dawe of the ONS explains how the organisation is using existing data and new techniques of gathering information to better understand sustainability across economic, environmental, and public health factors

Credit: annca from Pixabay

Whether it’s climate change or solutions for poverty and inequality, governments around the world are looking for national policies to address the long-term international challenges we face today. But how do we measure the progress we are making to addressing these challenges?

The United Nations launched the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015 to answer this very question. 

These goals range from eradicating poverty and ending hunger, to reducing inequalities, halting climate change, and restoring ecosystems. The UK’s Office for National Statistics helped develop a statistical framework to measure global progress towards the goals.

By setting goals which each country measures using their national data, it is possible to get an unbiased, evidence-based picture of how well each country and the international community are performing against these challenges. 

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (or SDGs) are made up of 169 targets which are measured by 244 indicators, covering a wide range of areas across five main themes: people, protecting the planet, prosperity, peace and partnerships. 

These themes are embedded and interlinked throughout the goals. For example, while goal 13 focuses on the plans governments have in place to tackle climate change – including air quality – air pollution is also considered under goal 3, about good health and wellbeing, and goal 11, about sustainable cities. 

The ONS is responsible for finding the right data to report against these indicators on behalf of the UK.  

So far, data for 187 out of the total 244 indicators has been sourced and is reported on our National Reporting Platform.  

Number of sustainable development goals identified by the UN

People, planet, prosperity, peace, partnerships
The five themes that encompass the goals  

Years the goals were launched

Number of indicators – out of a total of 244 – for which data is already reported publicly by ONS

While the ONS, as the largest independent producer of official statistics in the UK, has access to a lot of the data needed for these indicators, we have also been working with government departments and other organisations to explore what additional data exists which can help to make sure we can give a full picture of the UK’s progress and fill any evidence gaps.

Using data from Public Health England and the National Perinatal Epidemiology Unit (NPEU) at the University of Oxford, we are able to report the rate of HIV infections, malaria cases and maternal mortality in the UK. This has highlighted to us that, in the UK, while we have relatively low maternal mortality rates, there are significant differences in outcomes for different groups of women. For example, in England, maternal mortality rates are considerably higher for black women than for all other ethnic groups.

We sourced data from Forestry Commission GB and the Forest Service in Northern Ireland to understand how the coverage of our forests change over time and how well they are being looked after. 

Using the ESRI geographical information system, we separated forest and non-forest land on the Ordnance Survey Mastermap to create an overlay representing the forest land coverage of the UK. This allowed us to provide breakdowns down to local authority district level, giving local authorities key information pertaining to forest cover in their area. Our next steps are to publish this local authority data on our National Reporting Platform and we are working on automating this analysis and scaling it up for use by other countries around the world. 

Working with industry
We have also been working with private companies to shine a light on areas where we do not currently have official statistics.  Working with LINK, the UK’s largest cash machine network, we have been able to develop a figure which shows how many people have access to a local ATM or bank. This indicator helps measure the wider goal of sustainable economic growth across the country.

Despite the progress we have made in sourcing data from these organisations, there remain gaps in the data available to provide evidence against each of the areas set out within the Sustainable Development Goals.  

We have been working with government departments and other organisations to explore what additional data exists which can help to make sure we can give a full picture of the UK’s progress and fill any evidence gaps

Currently we do not have data to allow us to measure how different water ecosystems change over time; a part of goal 6 which looks at access to clean water and sanitation. To try and overcome this, the ONS’s Data Science Campus is investigating whether ‘automatic colour detection’ technology using satellite data can help measure changes in bodies of water.  

This would mean using machine learning technology – where the machine learns which colours represent a body of water – allowing thousands of satellite images to be analysed, to interpret changes in different shades of colour that is then turned into data that can then be tracked over time.  The ONS has already used this technology to identify how much green space is present in urban gardens within the UK.

But even with these novel techniques, we are continuing to explore what data already exists and how it can be used to fill the gaps in reporting against these goals. Through collaboration and further innovation, we are hopeful that we will be able to help the UK and other countries around the world to provide the evidence needed to design a more sustainable future for us all.


Sam Trendall

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