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A fountain of ideas, inspiration and interaction: reflections from the 2023 PARIS21 Spring Meetings

On 22 March 2023, PARIS21’s annual global gathering of experts, innovators and change agents took place in Basel, Switzerland. The daylong conference on Local data to leave no one behind was an opportunity to radically rethink the way that we approach sustainable development challenges. 
More than thirty governments, development experts, civil society leaders and corporate innovators debated and discussed issues of trust, efficiency, coordination around local data initiatives, unpacking dozens of innovative initiatives to leverage AI, satellite technology, methodological innovation and partnerships to reach a new level of data localisation to help individuals and communities adapt to climate change, improve survival and service delivery in humanitarian contexts, and improve gender, education and health outcomes for those at greatest risk of being left behind.
The event was also livestreamed on YouTube, with more than nine hundred participants attending online. This lively group kept up a steady stream of chatter on the platform and posed dozens of insightful questions to the panellists. Many also let us know where they were joining from, and we were delighted to see that it was a truly global audience, with individuals from more than fifty countries in attendance.
The event was a partnership between PARIS21, the Swiss Federal Statistical Office’s Unlocking the Power of Data Initiative and the Canton of Basel-Stadt, and was hosted at Halle 7, a repurposed factory in Basel, whose eclectic character inspired a lot of dynamism and creativity to the events of the day.
The Spring Meeting followed a closed meeting of the Bern Network for Financing Development Data, hosted the preceding day at the University of Basel. More than twenty in-person participants joined the meeting, with a further forty online. Grateful at the chance to meet one another, the conversations were lively and upbeat and participants were eager to share their opinions and ideas about how the Bern Network can continue to exert an influence on global trends regarding financing for development data. 
Following the event, participants joined a lecture series from the University of Basel that explored how researchers are using local data for their own projects. 
So many rich discussions took place that it would be hard to capture them all but here are a few impressions from each session:

Session 1 - The many guises of sub-national and local data: how to identify, source and use it for sustainable development? 


Image of a large industrial meeting hall with a man opening a meeting, showing an image of green roofs in Basel, Switzerland

 Opening the event, Jean-Luc Bernasconi, Member of the Board of Directors, Head of Foundations and Quality Division, Chief of Staff, Office of the Directorate, Swiss Development Cooperation Agency, stressed the importance of solutions-oriented thinking and partnerships in addressing the multitudes of complex development challenges that the world faces today. 
PARIS21 Executive Head, Johannes Jütting highlighted the timeliness of the spring meeting, at the halfway point of the SDGs and where, moreover, on a number of measures progress is backsliding. He offered some optimism that, at the local level, we are seeing improvements in poverty, development and equality and that the often gloomy global picture can obscure this.
Georges-Simon Ulrich, Director General of the Swiss Federal Statistical Office, emphasised the need to focus on the local data, especially when it comes to challenges as complex as the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), in order to make fact-based decisions. To make his point, he compared healthcare costs across cantons, which are highly heterogenous. Thus, local data offers an advantage over national data which could be misleading.
Building on Johannes’ optimistic approach, Peter Speyer, Head Data, Analytics and AI at the Novartis Foundation presented an innovative toolkit that they rolled out in Mongolia, Senegal and Brazil to strengthen local data infrastructure in cities, the effect of which was to reduce stroke mortality, chronic heart disease and morbidity by double-digit numbers.
Finally, a panel discussion moderated by Petra Keller Gueguen, Head, Staff Division, Swiss Federal Statistical Office set the scene for the day by providing an introduction to the legal, technical and methodological dimensions of local data through case studies from the OECD, UNITAR and Development Initiatives. PARIS21 Board Chair, Yusuf Murangwa, provided important context from Rwanda while showcasing the tremendous strides that his country has made in this area.


Session 2 - Sub-national data to the rescue: the role of local data in humanitarian responses
Photograph of a panel on a stage with two men and a woman and 2 virtual panelists projected onto the wall behind them

Opening the session, Björn Gillsäter, Head, UNHCR-World Bank Joint Data Center on Forced Displacement described the importance of statistical systems as the foundation of a well-functioning society (his toilet plunger prop, which he used to illustrate the importance of good sewage, was especially appreciated by the audience!) He further stressed the importance of on-the-ground implementation and of how vital it is to involve local people in decision-making.
Following Björn’s remarks, a panel hosted by PARIS21 Deputy Executive Head, François Fonteneau, unpacked questions around data gaps at the local level in humanitarian contexts, ethical questions, and, in response to Björn’s comments, looking at how we can empower affected communities. Panellists from the University of Basel, the NSOs of Malawi and the Philippines and the Swiss Development Cooperation agency provided a good mix of examples with a strong theoretical underpinning to illustrate the issues.

Session 3 - Local data for global change: the case of climate change 
Picture of a man standing at a lectern giving a speech

During the third session, Mr. Beat Jans, President of the Government of the Canton of Basel-Stadt, Switzerland, underlined the importance of local data, as well as the gaps and challenges that still need to be overcome to obtain the necessary local data. He stressed that the potential impact of these data on the welfare of communities is even more significant during humanitarian and other crises where timeliness is of the essence to ensure lifesaving support for affected and vulnerable communities.
Ward Anseeuw, Lead Technical Specialist responsible for the establishment of the Global Land Observatory, International Land Coalition (ILC), followed those remarks by sharing the astonishing fact that 80 percent of the globe's biodiversity and 70 percent of the intact forests of our planet are located on indigenous peoples and local communities territories and lands. This raises an important issue that local people often do not have access to that use for land rights, nor do they have the capacity to report on indicators of relevance.
The subsequent panel discussion, moderated by PARIS21 Policy Analyst, Elisa Narminio, took these conversations further, unpacking how local data is informing climate change policies and programmes, exploring the challenges in accessing and using local data for policymakers and spurring cross-border fertilization between the global north and global south.
Finally, Johannes Jütting, Executive Head of PARIS21 introduced the Climate Change Data Ecosystem (CCDE), stressing the need for a more coordinated climate action at the local level.


Session 4 – Smarter financing for development data: new horizons for data partnerships
Image of a moderator with two panelists on a stage and two panelists participating remotely projected on the wall behind them

 Opening the session, Håvard Nygård, Deputy Director General, Director of Knowledge, Norad spoke about how Norway is working to shift the power so that local actors develop, own and use local data that is sufficiently disaggregated to capture the nuances of sustainable development. In this respect, Norad is convening a donor roundtable to make bring these ideas to life, and working to influence other development partners to further empower local people.
Juan M, Lavista Ferres, Vice President, Chief Data Scientist, and Director of the AI For Good Lab at Microsoft gave a keynote address on new horizons for data partnerships emphasising the power of data. He emphasised the potential of AI in driving change, unlocking new horizons in analysing vast troves of data. Yet, as he said, these things have to be open source and we need to democratise data and AI in order to unleash its full potential and empower local communities.
Following this, a spirited panel discussion moderated by PARIS21 Communications & Partnerships Manager, Sasha Ramirez-Hughes, brought Meta, the NSO of Lesotho, Data-Pop Alliance, and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, took a hard look at issues around trust, privacy and data sharing. Although the complexity of data partnerships is clear, all panellists agreed that there is significant will from all parties to partner for goo, and that sufficient examples of collaborations that are driving change are emerging to inspire other examples.
Closing the event, Johannes and Georges-Simon reiterated the importance of gatherings like these that bring together multiple stakeholders from different walks of life to not only substantively address issues around local data, but also to forge new partnerships and co-create solutions.
To this end, Johannes raised the prospect of a new project, building on PARIS21’s highly successful Trust Initiative, to support local data initiatives for the public good. He called on all interested parties to join PARIS21 in co-creating such an initiative. More details to follow soon!
After a long but highly engaging day, in-person participants were treated to a reception hosted by the Canton of Basel-Stadt. Despite having busy schedules, many panellists and audience members stayed to chat with one another and enjoy the refreshments provided by the Canton – a sure sign of a successful event!

Event photo album


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