In­no­va­tive ap­proaches to the col­lec­tion of sta­tis­ti­cal data

The Star Early Edition - - BUSINESS REPORT - Pali Le­hohla Dr Pali Le­hohla is South Africa’s Statis­ti­cianGen­eral and Head of Sta­tis­tics South Africa

OUT­GO­ING UN Sec­re­tary-Gen­eral, Ban Ki-moon, granted the South African gov­ern­ment the rights to host the very first UN World Data Fo­rum. Sta­tis­tics SA be­came host to the world of more than 1400 nerds, statis­ti­cians, fi­nanciers, NGOs, politi­cians and academia from Jan­uary 15 to 18.

At stake was how do we mo­bilise ev­i­dence for pros­per­ity of peo­ple and planet? How do we en­sure that no one is left be­hind? How do we en­gage the Sus­tain­able De­vel­op­ment Goals (SDGs) agenda based on ev­i­dence?

Th­ese stake­hold­ers hud­dled to­gether at the Cape Town In­ter­na­tional Con­ven­tion Cen­tre to work out the modal­i­ties of col­lect­ing, or­gan­is­ing and pro­cess­ing ev­i­dence to meet the de­mands of plan­ning for a bet­ter life that leaves no one be­hind. In short, pros­per­ity for peo­ple and planet.


In­no­va­tive ap­proaches to the col­lec­tion of data for sta­tis­ti­cal ap­pli­ca­tions in pol­icy de­vel­op­ment now abound.

Th­ese in­no­va­tions have led to the pos­si­bil­ity of de­liv­er­ing bet­ter knowl­edge bases in ev­i­dence based pol­icy-mak­ing. Tech­nolo­gies which in the main in­clude the use of mo­bile and hand-held de­vices, satel­lite im­agery and lim­it­less pos­si­bil­i­ties in pas­sive col­lec­tion of data have stretched prospects in sta­tis­ti­cal ap­pli­ca­tions to bound­aries that have hith­erto been un­known. This led to the coin­ing of the term Data Rev­o­lu­tion.

The re­port to the UN Sec­re­tary-Gen­eral by the In­de­pen­dent Ex­pert Ad­vi­sory Group (IEAG) on Data Rev­o­lu­tion, in which I had the ben­e­fit to serve, sug­gests the ca­pac­ity and ca­pa­bil­ity of the world to gen­er­ate data is un­prece­dented. This state of abil­i­ties ex­plodes pos­si­bil­i­ties for a uni­verse that is and should be know­able. The ques­tions that have to be asked are not about the lack of data but are about:

How data is or­gan­ised in or­der for cit­i­zens to gain in­sights and im­prove.

Knowl­edge and un­der­stand­ing of their uni­verse.

What are the value chains and trans­mis­sion mech­a­nisms of data.

How the knowl­edge and un­der­stand­ing are ap­plied and used for good and trans­for­ma­tion of lives for the bet­ter. How the sys­tems are sus­tained for good. Who owns th­ese data sys­tems, es­pe­cially, and can they be open.

An im­por­tant ar­gu­ment for data to be pub­lic is its prop­erty of be­ing non-ri­val in eco­nomic terms. It de­fies the laws of scarcity. Ev­ery­one can have it with­out some­one be­ing de­prived ac­cess to the same data any­where and ev­ery­where.

Data is un­struc­tured ob­ser­va­tions and you re­quire sta­tis­ti­cal science which in the main deals with the col­lec­tion, clas­si­fi­ca­tion, anal­y­sis, and in­ter­pre­ta­tion of nu­mer­i­cal facts or data, and by the use of math­e­mat­i­cal the­o­ries of prob­a­bil­ity, im­poses or­der and reg­u­lar­ity on ag­gre­gates of more or less dis­parate el­e­ments.

You can­not have sta­tis­tics with­out data and con­versely you can have data with­out sta­tis­tics but you are less likely to se­cure in­sights es­sen­tial for plan­ning and de­liv­er­ing in­tended value.

When we ended the UN World Data Fo­rum, we were all up­beat about what we were go­ing to do next in­clud­ing that the next Fo­rum will be in Dubai next year.

A Cape Town Global Ac­tion Plan was com­piled for tabling at the UN Sta­tis­tics Com­mis­sion in March this year for con­sid­er­a­tion and adop­tion. Of course the en­ter­tain­ment that ac­com­pa­nied the fo­rum by the UN Good­will Am­bas­sador and artist Yvonne Chaka Chaka was still chim­ing in the heads of the del­e­gates who were wowed out of their wits.


So it was a per­fect mo­ment to agree and this rep­re­sented the cli­max of the fo­rum.

But as the Data Fo­rum con­cluded an un­called for anti-cli­max emerged. A day later Wil­liam Davies pub­lished his sem­i­nal piece in the Guardian on “How sta­tis­tics lost their power – and why we should fear what comes next”.

The ar­ti­cle spread among del­e­gates like wild fire and the no­tion that Davies ad­vances is that “the abil­ity of sta­tis­tics to ac­cu­rately rep­re­sent the world is de­clin­ing. In its wake, a new age of big data con­trolled by pri­vate com­pa­nies is tak­ing over – and putting democ­racy in peril”.

The tech­nol­ogy tools and sen­sors have gen­er­ated com­mons. Never be­fore has so much of the com­mons been un­der di­rect con­trol of pri­vate hands. It is a scary prospect for a va­ri­ety of rea­sons.

First, can pri­vate hands ob­serve ethics of pri­vacy where self-in­ter­est is the pri­mary mo­tive? Sec­ond, what hap­pens to the com­mons when for a va­ri­ety of rea­sons self-in­ter­est shifts through merg­ers and ac­qui­si­tions, es­pe­cially not rul­ing out hos­tile takeover?

What hap­pens to the com­mons when pri­vate in­ter­ests go belly up? It is im­pos­si­ble to imag­ine life with­out Google, Mi­crosoft, Ya­hoo, What­sApp, Skype, MasterCard, Alibaba – you name it.

Life of data has never been this good and easy yet we also know the too big to fail syn­drome is false.

Lehman Broth­ers and a host of other banks, elec­tric­ity out­fits such as En­ron in Cal­i­for­nia and dot­com bub­bles oc­curred go­ing down with hard-won pub­lic and in­di­vid­ual life sav­ings in the first in­stance but with cru­cial data hold­ings se­condly.

To­day, if any of the data hubs were to im­plode the world would be in­se­cure and in fact hack­ers are just an­other threat not only to the data gi­ants that con­trol and man­age the com­mons pri­vately, but threaten in­sti­tu­tions that are as­signed as cus­to­di­ans of the com­mons.

The emer­gence of sta­tis­tics as a science-based knowl­edge sys­tem that is in­te­gral to and es­sen­tial for de­vel­op­ment pro­cesses at­tracted states and their gov­er­nors. Sta­tis­tics have thus be­come the in­stru­ment for state­craft. Sta­tis­tics as a dis­ci­pline that or­gan­ises data for gain­ing in­sights, knowl­edge and un­der­stand­ing led to the es­tab­lish­ment of the UN Sta­tis­tics Com­mis­sion in 1947 af­ter the Sec­ond World War. The de­vel­op­ment of sta­tis­tics as the science of sys­tem­atic as­sem­blage and anal­y­sis of ob­ser­va­tions no doubt will grow as ob­ser­va­tion tools mul­ti­ply and get more so­phis­ti­cated.

But as Davies points out “The de­clin­ing author­ity of sta­tis­tics – and the ex­perts who an­a­lyse them – is at the heart of the cri­sis that has be­come known as “post­truth” pol­i­tics. And in this un­cer­tain new world, at­ti­tudes to­wards quan­ti­ta­tive ex­per­tise have be­come in­creas­ingly di­vided. From one per­spec­tive, ground­ing pol­i­tics in sta­tis­tics is elit­ist, un­demo­cratic and obliv­i­ous to peo­ple’s emo­tional in­vest­ments in their com­mu­nity and na­tion. It is one more way that priv­i­leged peo­ple in Lon­don, Wash­ing­ton DC or Brus­sels seek to im­pose their world view on ev­ery­body else.

‘The de­clin­ing author­ity of sta­tis­tics – and the ex­perts who an­a­lyse them – is at the heart of a cri­sis that has be­come known as post-truth pol­i­tics.’

Tabloid edi­tors

From the op­po­site per­spec­tive, sta­tis­tics are the op­po­site of elit­ist. They en­able jour­nal­ists, cit­i­zens and politi­cians to dis­cuss so­ci­ety, not on the ba­sis of anec­dote, sen­ti­ment or prej­u­dice, but in ways that can be val­i­dated. The al­ter­na­tive to quan­ti­ta­tive ex­per­tise is less likely to be democ­racy than an un­leash­ing of tabloid edi­tors and dem­a­gogues to pro­vide their own “truth” of what is go­ing on across so­ci­ety.

Un­der the UN, and through the ap­pli­ca­tion of the United Na­tions Fun­da­men­tal Prin­ci­ples for Of­fi­cial Sta­tis­tics the UN World Data Fo­rum holds hope for na­tions to be at peace with sta­tis­tics as an ar­biter of ar­gu­ments. And as Davies puts it “They ought to pro­vide sta­ble ref­er­ence points that ev­ery­one – no mat­ter what their pol­i­tics – can agree on.”


Out­go­ing UN Sec­re­tary-Gen­eral Ban Ki-moon granted SA the rights to host the first UN World Data Fo­rum.

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