Using Community-Driven Data to Drive Social Impact

(Stefan, second from right, at political forum event in New York, 2019, discussing how best to help communities leverage their own data)

Written by Angela de Burger

“Respect and trust form the base of this work,” says Stefan Jungcurt, leader of the International Institute for Sustainable Development’s (IISD) work on indicators and data for Sustainable Development Goal monitoring. He is thoughtful and precise about the way data is collected, assessed and monitored in order to impact serious global issues.

“Accurately crafting the story that is derived from community-driven data is as important as diligent data work,” he says. “It’s not only important to collect data, but to ensure you look at it with open eyes. Begin with an analysis to see what questions the data is answering, rather than starting with a question and looking for data that you think will provide a solution.”

Through initiatives such as the Leaving No Canadian Behind report, delving into the potential for open data and data interoperability, as well as addressing Canada’s 2030 Agenda for the SDGs, the IISD creates knowledge so action can be taken towards creative, bold solutions with significant impact on sustainable development.

About IISD

CREATE framework

The IISD is an award-winning independent think tank that is working to fulfill a bold mission: to create a world where people and the planet thrive. They are guided by five core priorities – Climate, Resources, Economies, Act Together and Engage—which together form the CREATE strategy that guides their actions.

The organization’s work is centred around five program areas: economic law and policy, energy, resilience, tracking progress, and water. It is within the tracking progress focus area that Stefan and the team at IISD is providing analyses, networking, and tools to interpret the state of sustainability in systems or regions, and promoting measurable, collaborative action.

Leaving No Canadians Behind report 

Report cover image

The UN’s 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), adopted by all member states in 2015, provide “a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future.”1 The bottom-up principle for achieving the SDGs means that each member country determines their own priorities in accordance with their own context. Voluntary reporting is completed at regular intervals. Another core principle is to leave no one behind in efforts to achieve the SDGs and to address first the needs of those most behind. 

Stefan says this is an area that has proven challenging as marginalized populations or groups at risk of being left behind are often absent from official data sets, or data are insufficient to accurately represent them.

In recognition of this fact and to aid in Canada’s ability to address the issue, IISD engaged in research and published the Leaving No Canadian Behind: Measuring the well-being of vulnerable Canadians for effective SDG implementation report in 2021.

The report includes seven key findings (pages iii-v) and includes the following recommendation: Our research establishes a rationale for Canada to take a multi-tiered measurement approach where local communities and organizations working with marginalized communities participate in gathering, governing, and using data to measure the state of their well-being in the SDG context.2

Stefan shares a data collection protocol of note, referenced in the report, and quite unique as he hasn’t seen protocols like this for any other groups. “First Nations have a history of being hurt by data so, naturally, they are reluctant to take part in data gathering. The First Nations Information Governance Centre (FNIGC) has developed a protocol for working with First Nations – the OCAP Principles – establishing how First Nations’ data and information will be collected, protected, used, or shared. The Principles are very comprehensive. A lot of effort has gone into it to ensure that any data collection is to the benefit of the people participating.” For example, the protocol establishes the principles of community data privacy, analogous to individual data privacy, that prohibits using data describing First Nations communities without their consent or using such data in ways that could harm the community. 

The FNIGC are strong advocates for a First Nations Data Governance Strategy in which they envision that “every First Nation will achieve data sovereignty in alignment with its distinct worldview.” Stefan hopes that similar efforts can be undertaken to enable other marginalized groups to use data to make their voices heard and be counted.

Community-driven data collection as empowerment

Community-based groups, thanks to their grassroots efforts, have the ability to nurture and build strong relationships with the people they serve. However, with limited resources, these groups do not always have the capacity to assess and aggregate the data they collect in order to maximize the learning opportunities it can provide. That’s where IISD can play a supportive role – collecting multiple data sets and making meaning from the information.

Stefan Jungcurt

Stefan views this as a dimension of empowerment. He believes there is tremendous value in empowering organizations who have invested in relationships and built trust with community members so they can put to good use the data they are entrusted with by their community. Respecting the trust that has been placed by the people sharing their personal information is paramount. For that reason, sensitively and accurately reflecting the story the data reveals is key to this work.

Data interoperability and open data

With data collection being conducted by many groups, cities, governments, from local to global scales, there is a question about if, or how, data sets can be combined or compared/contrasted with each other. 

The answer may be in data interoperability: the joining together of data from different sources without losing meaning.

“It’s possible but is still in its very early stages,” says Stefan, about data interoperability. “There may be niche applications where this makes sense, perhaps restricted to certain clusters of issues. With AI (artificial intelligence), perhaps this will change because of new ways of pulling out and assessing data.” He adds, “it requires specific expertise and is hard to scale; we need to be very careful about this but the possibility is there to do exciting things.”

Chapter 5 of the Leaving No Canadian Behind report addresses the topic of data interoperability, drawing on the findings from the Pathways Towards Data Interoperability for the Sustainable Development Goals in Canada report, published by MaRS in 2019. That report highlights that the objective is “to strike a balance between the benefits of interoperability and legitimate concerns around privacy, security, and potential misuses of data.”

Connected to this approach is the use of open data sources such as data repositories and longitudinal studies, which contain information that is made publicly available at no or low cost for the use of any interested party. Stefan cautions that when offering or accessing open data sources, there needs to be an agreement about how the information may be used, and importantly, not used. 

“Access to data is great but there is a danger of damaging the community that provided the information,” says Stefan. Responsible use of the data and transparency about the methods used for interpreting it are critically important. 

How to begin working with data

For organizations wishing to start or to improve their ability to measure and assess progress on SDG indicators, Stefan says, “keep it simple.” Determine what you are realistically able to do, how you will do it, and the goals you have in terms of learning from the data you collect.

“Participating in a datathon, for example by working with Data for Good, is a great way for organizations to get started,” says Stefan. Data for Good is a national not-for-profit organization with chapters across the county, which describes itself as a collective of do-gooders who want to use their powers for good, and not evil, to help make communities better through data. 

Although he has not yet had an opportunity to work directly with the Common Approach to Impact Measurement, Stefan also suggests this initiative as a valuable resource for organizations looking to begin their own social impact measurement journey. He is interested in exploring the possibilities that may exist for applying the Common Approach to community-first data so that’s on his wish list for the future.

Canada’s 2030 Agenda for the SDGs

The federal government is preparing to release its next report on SDG progress, anticipated to be available in July 2023. Stefan notes that an element that is currently missing from these Voluntary National Reviews, as they are called in UN jargon, is “countries daring to create space for civil society, where they can present complementary perspectives.” Within the overall report, he says it would be valuable to dedicate a page to share alternative accounts from the perspective of the data specifically from marginalized, under-represented communities and how they are experiencing progress on the SDGs. 

“One country – Finland – has provided a great example by allowing civil society organizations to contribute an equal amount of data and stories on each SDG that is presented alongside the official government reporting,” Stefan says. “I see great potential for this approach moving forward. Using a data-driven story approach, we can share the stories of the people we’re focused on when we talk about leaving no Canadian behind.”

Recommendations to the federal government

Looking to the future, Stefan has two recommendations for the Canadian government and their SDG agenda, related to the Leaving No Canadians Behind report:

  1. Focus on skill-building: create opportunities for rapid capacity-building and assessment programs for organizations.
  2. Open up more space in the voluntary national review and allow community organizations to use their data to tell their stories for an enriched perspective on national SDG progress (as described above).


During 2019 Climate Strike in Winnipeg that prominently featured Indigenous voices and leadership

Looking to the future

Community-driven data collection is a crucial element of Canada’s continuing progress on the SDGs. Being respectful of the fact that researchers are being entrusted with personal information by research participants will continue to play a large part in determining how data is collected, analyzed and monitored over time. 

Looking to the future, IISD will continue to research, share and implement related learnings as foundational elements of their mission to accelerate solutions for a stable climate (SDG #13), sustainable resources (SDG #12) and fair economies (SDG #8), while making our cities and communities more sustainable (SDG #11) and ensuring that no one is left behind.



2 (page v)

3 (page 6)


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