The world of official data and statistics: not yet dead!

Image: Binary Data

Data and statistics; not yet dead

Recently, it has become popular to question the relevance of “statistics” to make sense of the evolving nature of today’s world. A recent article in the Guardian claimed that “rather than diffusing controversy and polarisation, it seems as if statistics are actually stoking them”. The credibility of “official statistics” on GDP, poverty or migration flows gets questioned as they seem to not be in line with what citizens experience in their daily lives. Nor do they seem able to capture how large parts of the population “feel” about societal developments.

Promising news coming from the first UN World Data Forum

Policy makers complain that official numbers come in too late and are not specific enough – making it difficult to use them for decision making. So, a good question to ask is: Why should we actually care about official data and statistics? Thanks to the data revolution, the world seems to have an abundance of numbers, coming from multiple sources far beyond traditional administrative, census and household survey data. In contrast to these developments, official statistics seem unable to adapt and relate to the new realities of fast evolving societies around the world.

World Data Forum

It was therefore very timely that the community of official statisticians from all over the world “stepped up, forward and on the gas,” as UK National Statistician John Pullinger put it, with January 2017’s first ever UN World Data Forum, organised under the auspices of the UN. With more than 1,400 participants from over 100 countries and with very different backgrounds – official statisticians, data journalists, academics, private sector and civil society representatives – this event was a truly global and inclusive exercise, allowing for a wide exchange of ideas. Many relevant issues were discussed during the forum, from technical issues such as interoperability using data from multiple sources to more fun aspects of data such as refereeing, data poetry, cartoons and engaging data visualisation techniques.

The World Data Forum was dominated by one main topic: the implementation of the Sustainable Development Agenda, and how data and statistics can be produced for the different goals and targets. A key issue that emerged was the idea of strengthening the capacities of data producers, users and donors, as well as completely re-thinking how capacity development in this new emerging data world should be done. The call was made to complement the “Industry 4.0” agenda with a “Capacity 4.0” agenda which not only looks at how to produce data but also addresses the use and impact of such data. Capacity 4.0 should encourage statisticians and data scientists to become better story tellers that can relate their empirical evidence to the reality of citizens‘ feelings and emotions, and move away from theoretical statements such as “on average, income has increased by x amount”.

The sheer number of sessions at the UN World Data Forum, with topics and debates in various formats, makes it difficult to select key results but, for me, four things stood out:

First, there is a lot of positive energy and excitement from both (official) data producers and users to engage in a debate on questions related to the role of data and statistics in the world. These range from questions on how to produce the data needed to monitor the Sustainable Development Goals, to open data (still a new subject for the official data community), to questions about the legitimacy of public statistics seen as “elitist and technocratic” which do not relate to the everyday concerns of citizens. The Forum was a great opportunity for intermingling, engaging and listening to different points of view, and for learning about the many data-focused initiatives such as the World Cities Alliance, the DataRepublica Project from CEPEI, the development of open algorithms and application programming interfaces (APIs).

Data literacy

Second, there new emerging data world is messy, complicated and can require informed choices on trade-offs. As an example, the 2030 development agenda has as a credo “leave no one behind” to reach out to the disadvantaged part of the population – such as the “ultra-poor”, disabled people, elderly and so on.  To make targeted policy interventions for these groups, data need to be disaggregated according to gender, age, location and other categories. Producing these data already requires a considerable effort in collection techniques as well as a need to guarantee privacy and confidentiality. Indeed, if such data falls into the wrong hands, the door is wide open for misuse. The data deluge and easy access to all sorts of data in our daily lives requires a new skill set to handle and manage this constant data flow. Developing a global programme on data literacy is one possible way to better equip citizens with key numerical skills and to cope with today’s large amount of information.

Third, for societies to embrace the data revolution, we need to build trust and partnerships. Managing the trade-offs between the data deluge on the one hand and the data scarcity on the other hand – in particular when it comes to lower income countries and fragile states – requires data producers and users to engage in an open dialogue. Key topics range from privacy and confidentiality to the openness of data, its use and impact, as well as the funding modalities of a public good such as official statistics. Access to new data sources requires the management of incentives and the handling of risks which can only be done in a mutually trustful and inclusive environment; in this sense the Forum itself was a promising example.

Germany and the data agenda

Forth, the international development community should now start “to walk the talk” and put more resources into the global public good of national SDG statistics, if the donors are serious about the measurement and evidence based policy agenda – we only treasure what we measure! The public support given to statistics and data production hovers around 400 m. US-$ per year since the last 5 years, which is less than a mere 0.5 % of Official Development Aid. With relative little financial means Germany could become next to the UK, Norway and Canada a lead country in this by now fairly neglected but important development agenda. Germany’s strong interest in the SGD agenda, in particular in the monitoring and follow up and review make it an ideal candidate. What if not now would be the best time to show leadership by supporting data for development? Besides providing (more) resources, strengthen the link between the data agenda, its “Partners for Review Project”  and PARIS21 by leveraging this agenda to a higher political level.

What next?

The first Forum has just ended, and preparations for the second one, which will take place in two years’ time in Dubai, need to start quickly in order to build upon this positive momentum. Looking forward, we will need to bring more policy makers, particularly at the highest levels, to the party – a crowd that was largely absent in Cape Town. These key stakeholders should be made more actively aware of the “data and statistics agenda” through by making it an explicit discussion point at the High-Level Political Forum in July. Clearly, as was shown repeatedly at the Forum, statisticians and data crunchers are able to get out of their comfort zone and are open and ready to engage in trusted dialogue – this open invitation should be now accepted and embraced by those people who can make a real difference and by everybody else too.

Image: Johannes Jütting

Johannes Jütting is Manager of the Partnership in Statistics for Development in the 21st Century (PARIS21), a global data partnership that promotes the improved use and production of statistics throughout the developing world.

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  1. Pingback: Warum und wie die deutsche EZ die Weltbank besser nutzen sollte – ein Plädoyer für Bi/Multi-Verzahnung - International Development Blog

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