Countries around the world are investing in infrastructure, social programs and environmental protection to meet the Sustainable Development Goals. Underpinning it all will be good data to track progress.

In 2015, world leaders adopted the Sustainable Development Goals, which seek to end poverty, fight inequality and injustice, and tackle climate change by 2030. More than 200 development indicators need to be tracked to assess the status of each of the 17 goals.

How can countries know how well they are progressing with these goals? And how can they determine the best way to channel social services to the people who need them most?

The answer is data.

"Governments have limited funds and have to make difficult decisions on what to invest in for the betterment of their citizens," said Lakshman Nagraj Rao, a statistician at the Asian Development Bank (ADB). "They need quality data to understand the impact of their investments and make appropriate decisions - what we call evidence-based policy making."

Many governments utilize statistics from national surveys for framing policies, but these data are often out of date because many countries still rely on traditional data collection methods that involve pencil and paper interviewing. The process of data collection, encoding and generation of results takes a long time, which means that policies are designed based on an outdated social or economic picture.

"Survey data are not just numbers in a spreadsheet. They represent thousands of little stories from which emerges a human narrative."

The quality of data from these traditional methods is also questionable if surveys are not well designed and implemented, and errors are not minimized during data collection.

"If survey data under or overestimate poverty figures for a country, then the wrong segment of the population will be the beneficiaries of poverty reduction programs," said Rao. "Thus, poor data can have a major negative impact on people's lives."

To address this problem, the ADB is working with governments in the region to improve the way they compile statistics. One of the projects promotes the use of computer-assisted personal interviewing or CAPI. This improves the accuracy of results and reduces the time and money spent on field data collection.

The interviewer uses a handheld device, such as a tablet or a mobile phone, with the survey questions preloaded. The answers can be quickly sent back to the national statistics office via the internet and can also integrate the location, time, photographs, and audio and video recordings. The system automatically checks for data errors, irregularities, and gaps while the interview is being conducted.

ADB will initially support three countries: the Marshall Islands; Sri Lanka; and Viet Nam. It will help national statistical offices in these countries to use CAPI to improve the scope, quality, and timeliness of national survey results linked to the SDGs.

"Meeting the Sustainable Development Goals is going to require investments not only in infrastructure, health, education and the environment, but also in statistics," said Rao. "The policies that come from these statistics will impact millions of lives."

"Survey data are not just numbers in a spreadsheet," he said. "They represent thousands of little stories from which emerges a human narrative, one that describes the day-to-day circumstances of individual people."