MOBILISING FOR GLOBAL PROSPERITY
Innovative approaches to the collection of statistical data
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.’
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.