The Financial Express

Authentic data for sustainable development

| Updated: October 21, 2020 22:23:44

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How can we distinguish between high quality and poor quality statistical data? Do quality standards exist for statistics? If so, who established them?

At present, when users have practically unlimited access to statistical information but often feel bombarded by the media with sometimes conflicting data, the ability to identify high-quality statistics is of paramount importance. Particular attention is paid to indicators used to assess both macroeconomic and structural policies. Nowadays, we are bombarded by statistics, the volume of which often creates confusion, rather than information. The challenge to find the most appropriate figures for a particular phenomenon becomes even harder when  stakeholders' comparisons are required.

The number of sources increased dramatically over the last decade and the use of search engines on the internet sometimes help in finding the best source, but often they list websites that contain conflicting data or do not provide appropriate metadata to assess their quality.

The national statistical offices in different countries are recognised worldwide as a formidable source of statistical information on economic, social and environmental topics. Students and researchers better understand the world in which they live and find appropriate evidence to carry out their work. It also helps journalists and analysts evaluate economic trends and assess the effectiveness of policies.

Not only that, it is designed to help policy advisors compile meaningful statistical reports to compare economic performances and provide evidence-based advice to decision makers. In doing so, the  national statistical offices provide  their contribution to better decisions, better policies and finally to a better world. The media publish socio-economic data on a daily basis.

But who decides which statistics are useful and which are not? Why is housework not included in the national income? Why are financial data available in real time, while analysts have to wait for weeks to know the number of people in employment? Contrary to popular belief, both the availability and the nature of economic statistics are closely linked to developments in economic theory, the requirements of political decision-makers, and each country's way of looking at itself. In practice, statistics are based on theoretical and interpretative reference models, and if these change, so does the picture the statistics paint of the economic system.

Thus, the data  that are authentic represent the supply and demand sides of statistical information constantly attempting to catch up with each other, with both sides being strongly influenced by the changes taking place in the society and political life.  The main challenge in the years to come for the producers of socio-economic statistics will be based not on their capacity to provide quality statistics, but to offer a product whose quality will be clearly evident to the users.

 Fundamental to this challenge will be the growth in the statistical culture at every user level, with special attention to the world of the media. Following the principles of national accounting, the value of a service should be measured in terms of the change in the status of the consumer. In the case of statistical data  we expect the consumer to experience an increase in his/her knowledge of the real world, enabling better choices for individual and collective well-being. 

Within the media, it is possible to distinguish the press agencies, radio and television especially interested in the speed at which data can be acquired, but much less so in thematic or sectoral detail, from the daily newspapers and periodicals, whose main concern is to tell a "story" based on the statistics. In the world of business, medium-to-large companies are interested in receiving timely information not only about national and international macroeconomic this will require a rethinking of the way in which economic statistics are currently compiled, especially with regard to the exchange of data between national statistical institutes in order to make national statistics more representative and consistent.

If statistical data and metadata are available, the capacity to transform this statistical information into knowledge to be used in decision-making by individuals, households, businesses and political institutions largely depends on the users' degree of statistical education, and this in turn depends on the country's level of economic development and also on purely cultural factors. Until now, little attention has been paid to measuring the actual impact of official statistics. Instead, the focus has been limited to measuring the quantity of data published or the annual gathering of data, in other words the processes of production and not the outcome of the statistical function.

One of the future challenges will be how to measure the impact of official statistics on decision-making processes. The provision of methodological information that defines the concepts and methods used in the collection, compilation, transformation, revision and dissemination of statistics, is an essential function of all agencies disseminating statistics at both the national and international levels.

In Bangladesh, the present government has enacted the Statistics Act 2013 considering the importance of official statistics. The passage of the Statistics Act has strengthened the legal basis of the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) as a national statistical institution.  BBS is recognised as the sole body for preparing and publishing official statistics. In addition, the government has declared February 27 as National Statistics Day to celebrate the fruitful role of statistical data and information, which has been the main driving force of the country's continued economic growth and success.

For statistics in Bangladesh, this is a golden opportunity to demonstrate its ability to share statistical know-how, contribute directly to better decision-making, and exchange knowledge and experience. In addition, Bangladesh needs a data revolution. We need to strengthen statistical capacity and tap the potential of new technology. We need the contributions and expertise of data producers and users, academia, the private sector and civil society.

Last but not the least, at a time when the whole world afflicted by Covid-19, we need data-based solutions to guide our way to a sustainable future. We deal with complexity by building a simplified version of reality in our minds, which cannot be challenged easily. We trust our beliefs. Most of what we consider true or self-evident is, in fact, based on trust and trusted data-driven economy which we expect and nurture for our sustainable development.

Md. Azgar Ali works at Bangladesh Statistical Association.

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