How do you use technology/policy to improve citizens’ lives? Tell us about your role or organisation.

I am heading the Statistics Division of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP). ESCAP is part of the United Nations (UN) secretariat. We work with 58 Asia-Pacific countries and territories on their aspirations to improve peoples’ lives through the delivery of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development – the universal plan adopted by 193 countries in 2015 to achieve 17 ambitious Goals including eliminating poverty and hunger, cleaning our air, oceans and land, co-existing in peace and many others.

In adopting the Agenda, countries agreed to a global follow-up and review process including 231 indicators. My Division works with countries to advance official statistics for these indicators of the 2030 Agenda and national policy priorities more generally.

In 2017, our analysis showed only 25% of the indicators had sufficient data to measure progress. In 2019, the percentage grew to 42%. But what these numbers mask is where the data gaps exist. And these are in key areas such as gender equality, life below water, life on land and sustainable production and consumption.

Technology generates a lot of data which can be used to address these data gaps. Earth observation or satellite data, for instance, can be used to fill data gaps for measuring progress towards the ambitions of life below water (Goal 14) and life on land (Goal 15). Mobile phone data can be used for sustainable cities and communities (Goal 11).

Our role therefore is to connect a need (or demand) with a solution (or supply) and encourage countries to see their business through new lenses and new solutions including the use of big data generated from technologies. Doing so helps improve people’s lives because data enables monitoring of how well the ambitions articulated in the 2030 Agenda are being met, including ensuring no one is being left behind.

What was the most impactful project you worked on this year?

This year has been anything but normal. Back in February 2020, who would have thought the world would have faced so many challenges due to the Covid-19 pandemic? As a development agency, our focus is supporting countries’ development and we quickly had to adapt to doing this virtually, without travel, and in response to new priorities and challenges being faced by countries.

The most impactful project we worked on this year was setting up an Asia-Pacific Stats Café. The Café is an opportunity for countries and development partners to connect, virtually and informally, to discuss common issues and hear possible solutions. Since June, over 20 Café sessions have been held on a range of topics. Statistics produced using digital data has been one of the common topics discussed and most popular sessions attended.

One remarkable thing about the Stats Café is that knowledge is now widely shared across the region, reaching more people than previously. Before a few dozen people could participate in workshops. Now we have webinars with hundreds.

What is one unexpected learning from 2020?

One unexpected learning from 2020 is just how well people adapt to technology, not just new technologies, but also existing technologies. Whether it is the use of messaging tools like WhatsApp and Messenger, working platforms like MS Teams and OneDrive or meeting tools like KUDOS, ZOOM, GoToMeeting, and WebEx, our staff have adapted quickly and seamlessly. Countries have adapted quickly. And the World Clock app has replaced the Weather app on my iphone to ensure meetings are not scheduled at 3 in the morning.

What tool or technique particularly interests you for 2021?

I have just finished an Agile training course and for 2021, I am keen to make use of the tools and techniques in a virtual setting. How does one do a ‘stand-up’ in a virtual setting? Kanban boards in a virtual setting? Huddles in a virtual setting? Without adding yet more hours to an already long day in front of a screen. Any advice from your readers would be very welcome.

What are your priorities for 2021?

On the work front, a priority for 2021 will be to move from general to more specific assistance to countries. There is a lot of talk about producing the SDG indicators with big data, but our most recent research shows there are very few countries walking-the-talk. Many are researching what could be done, many are undertaking pilots, but very few are officially using big data for their SDG indicators. So, in 2021, we want to connect those countries which have made the jump to those who are thinking of making the jump to build confidence, capacity, and capability.

What advice would you give to women looking to start a career in GovTech?

A career in GovTech is a great choice whatever gender or sex you relate to. There are so many opportunities in the Government sector to use technology and to benefit from other’s use of technology. Technology is integral to our lives – it’s hard to think of a moment in a day when some form of technology is not being used. So, think about which part of the technology life cycle you would enjoy working in: development, use, evaluation, etc. and there will be a career for you.

Write a message for your future self.

Hi there. Have you had some screen-free time today? Take a break, enjoy some fresh air, meet up with someone for a coffee and chat, and leave all your technological gadgets at home.