Toward Better Data for the Social Progress Index

The Social Progress Index (SPI) is a unique measure that allows users to gain a better understanding of how their country or region is doing on social progress. The index relies on publicly available, high-quality data that is accurate, measured consistently across most countries, and updated frequently. Each year, we conduct a rigorous review of the data we have included in past years, as well as new data we can incorporate to ensure the validity and usefulness of the index. However, we are often limited by the data available and thus are unable to include certain social outcomes.

The world scorecard for the 2018 global Social Progress Index. Each Component (Basic Human Needs, Foundations of Wellbeing, Opportunity) has at least three indicators; the index is comprised of 51 indicators in total.

Most frequently, we are unable to include indicators because they are inconsistent or non-existent across most countries. For example, standardized test outcomes are indicative of student success and the quality of education; such data would be well-placed in the Access to Basic Knowledge component of the SPI. These tests, though, are not consistently administered across all countries: The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) collects education data on 92 countries, while other tests such as the SACMEQ, PASEC, LLECE, and EGRA collect education data in other regions using varying methodologies.

Data may also be unavailable because it is difficult to capture. For example, violence against women is a potential indicator of Personal Safety, and its elimination is a target for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Yet in order to truly know how many women experience violence in a given area, we have to rely on self-reporting, with the understanding that not all women come forward. Accordingly, we’ve found that only 50% of countries collect such data, and we cannot feel confident in many of these estimates. A similar trend holds true for data on hate crimes across the world.

We rely on countries to report data to multinational institutions and take part in global surveys. Countries may dispute published data or retract data they have submitted, leaving the efficacy of the information uncertain. In the case of global surveys, questions that relate to the inclusion of various groups and ethnicities may be deemed too sensitive to be asked among the population. Specifically, limited data are collected on LBTQIA populations and the data we do have do not include values for some Middle Eastern and Northern African countries. 

The global SPI seeks to provide information about how countries across the world are performing on social progress relative to one another. Much of the annually conducted research on new indicators is guided by user feedback and designed to increase alignment with the SDGs. Please find below a brief list of some indicators that are most often noted as absent but are important to better defining and measuring social progress. Indicators are bolded and grouped by component for ease of access.

SHELTER: User inquiries often relate to homelessness or lack of adequate housing. There is no internationally agreed-upon definition of homelessness and on a global scale, such data are difficult to capture and not standardized across countries. 

PERSONAL SAFETY: We seek to include data on violence against women or hate crimes, but such measures are heavily reliant on self-reporting and are difficult to capture accurately. 

ACCESS TO BASIC KNOWLEDGE; ACCESS TO ADVANCED EDUCATION: Data on educational attainment are scarce for all levels of education – primary and secondary (Access to Basic Knowledge), and postsecondary (Access to Advanced Education). In general, education data are notoriously lacking, with data missing across countries and gaps in data between years. We continue to track the development of harmonized standardized test scores across countries as a measure of educational quality.

ACCESS TO INFORMATION AND COMMUNICATIONS: Currently, the only data publicly available on mobile telephone access relates to the number of subscriptions. The ideal measure, which is not captured by any public source, is the proportion of individuals who have any number of mobile phone subscriptions.  

HEALTH AND WELLNESS: Long-term health is reliant on both physical and mental wellness and thus the prevalence of mental health issues is important to understand. However, mental health outcomes, such as depression, are difficult to measure and are not collected by official data sources. Morbidity is harder to measure than mortality and we are seeking ways to gain a more complete picture of mental health issues.

ENVIRONMENTAL QUALITY: The Environmental Quality component seeks to capture the quality of land, water, and air; yet as with water, data on land and living habitat are limited. We would like to better capture environmental degradation and the loss of species, in line with the relevant SDG targets. Moreover, the Social Progress Index previously included a measure of freshwater withdrawals as a proportion of the available freshwater resources to measure water stress, but these data have not been updated since 2014.

PERSONAL RIGHTS: A target of the SDGs, we have explored whether we could include a measure of birth registration in the Social Progress Index under the component of Personal Rights. However, the emerging data are limited to 2015, with no historical data that would allow us to measure changes over time. 

PERSONAL FREEDOM AND CHOICE: The Social Progress Index includes a measure of early child marriage among women aged 15 to 19 years, but we lack data on children younger than 15 and the data are published intermittently.

INCLUSIVENESS: We are missing data on inclusion of the disabled in the workplace and politics, as well as their unmet needs. We have not yet found a complete country-level database that meets our indicator guidelines and that serves as a good measure for these concepts. Additionally, we currently include one indicator on the acceptance of lesbians and homosexuals, but do not have data on the acceptance of bisexuals, transgender, queer, intersex and asexual persons, and would like more specific data on the inclusion and acceptance of LGBTQIA persons. The Social Progress Index also currently lacks specific attention to the inclusion and acceptance of immigrant populations present in most countries. Ideally, we would find a measure that captures incidents or prevalence of discrimination in addition to acceptance and inclusion.

INDEX-WIDE: The Social Progress Imperative seeks to apply the Social Progress Index sub-nationally and thematically to best serve the needs of policymakers, business leaders, and global citizens alike. We are always looking for data disaggregated by age, gender, race/ethnicity, rurality, socioeconomic status, and nationality to meet these more specific measurement needs. Each of these demographic breakdowns highlights aspects of social progress where there may be inequalities between groups, yet country-level datasets are often not published with such detail.

See our Methodology Summary learn more about the data collection and calculation methodology of the Social Progress Index.

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