That 'thing' called statistics

Published on Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Published by Lakshman Nagraj Rao on Tuesday, 20 October 2015

A technician at a hydropower plant in Bhutan.
A technician at a hydropower plant in Bhutan.

It is not purely coincidental that this year’s release of ADB’s Key Indicators report coincides with World Statistics Day. The report is a testament to ADB’s long-term commitment toward providing timely, high-quality, and open data alongside expanding data literacy and strengthening statistical capacity in Asia and the Pacific.

But what is the relevance of World Statistics Day, given that over 125 international days are currently being observed by the United Nations? Shouldn’t gender-based violence and other issues such as HIV, poverty, lack of education, or the ongoing refugee crisis matter more than statistics?

While the relative importance of each development issue varies from person to person, statistics are the linking thread to all of these critical issues. Without the availability of data, none of these issues can be monitored effectively to enhance policies or improve decision-making at the local, national or international level. World Statistics Day also recognizes the importance of developing national statistical capacity and providing up-to-date data for policy formulation and monitoring of international development goals addressing poverty and other issues.

2015 is an important year for statistics for several reasons:

  1. Completion of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The MDGs shaped much of the international development agenda for the past 15 years, and relied heavily on the availability of data to monitor the progress of 8 development goals and 60 indicators. While critics of the MDGs may argue on implementation and evaluation grounds, a major accomplishment of the MDGs lies in it being the first large-scale global effort to track development outcomes and improve coordination, collaboration and exchange of knowledge between governments, development partners, think tanks, and the private sector. 
  2. Adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs were confirmed as the post-2015 development agenda at the recently concluded UN Sustainable Development Summit, where more than 150 UN member countries participated. With 169 targets embedded within 17 goals, the SDGs will be instrumental for continued cooperation across multiple stakeholders to end poverty in all its forms, promote shared prosperity, and support sustainable development over the next 15 years.
  3. Call for a “Data Revolution.” The term was coined by the High-Level Panel for the Post-2015 Agenda appointed by the UN Secretary-General, which acknowledged that “a true data revolution would draw on existing and new sources of data to fully integrate statistics into decision-making, promote open access to and use of data, and ensure increased support for statistical systems.” An important outcome of the Data Revolution is the recent launch of the Global Partnership on Sustainable Development Data, tasked with using the data revolution to achieve and measure the SDGs. The committee for the Global Partnership will focus on ways to improve data use, fill data gaps, expand data literacy and capacity, mobilize resources, and increase openness of existing data.

Innovation is the big word today, and is also expected to play a key role in improving the availability of official statistics. 

There is an urgent need to move away from traditional methods of data collection to newer technology, without compromising on the statistical rigor that traditional approaches offer. ADB supports innovative approaches to data collection such as cost-effective satellite data for improving crop production estimates using rigorous statistical procedures; a web-based system for registering vital events and generating vital statistics; piloting new methods to capture gender differences in ownership of assets; and understanding the complex nature of an increasingly fragmented and distributed production process through global value chains, not traditionally accounted for in trade statistics. There is also a need to make data more accessible and easier to understand for everyone. Tools like GapMinder and Google Visualization are pushing the frontier through animated statistics, colorful graphics, and interesting ways of presenting data. ADB must incorporate such initiatives into its data platforms.

Let us not treat World Statistics Day as yet another international day, but have an appreciation of how statistics has the ability to transform our understanding of the world. Meeting the SDGs is going to require investments not only in infrastructure, health, education and the environment, but also in statistics since policymakers can only develop informed policies that impact millions of lives with reliable information. Information is, after all, power.