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Statistical Agencies Must Still Overcome Number of Challenges

The important role of official statistics in policymaking—key topic discussed at joint IMF-World Bank conference to celebrate World Statistics Day (photo: IMF)

World Statistics Day

Statistical Agencies Must Still Overcome Number of Challenges

By Natalie Ramirez-Djumena
IMF Survey online

October 25, 2010

  • UN dedicates 20 October, or 20-10-2010, as World Statistics Day
  • Achievements made in data availability, transparency, and dissemination
  • But national statistical agencies need to find better ways to compile, process data

On the first-ever celebration of World Statistics Day, panelists at an IMF-World Bank conference to mark the occasion offered suggestions on how to make the world statistical system more robust and better equipped to cope with the new and diverse needs and sources for data.

On October 20, 2010, the world celebrated the first World Statistics Day to raise awareness of the many achievements of official statistics and the core values of service, integrity, and professionalism. Nearly all countries around the globe as well as international institutions marked the day with special events.

In opening remarks, Murilo Portugal, IMF Deputy Managing Director, said that the inauguration of World Statistics Day comes at a very critical juncture. “This devastating financial crisis has inflicted tremendous costs around the world and served as a humbling experience and wakeup call, including for all statisticians,” he said. “Even for the most advanced statistical systems such as in Europe and North America, the crisis highlighted ‘black holes’ in data that now need to be addressed.”

“We must ensure that statistics are used by policymakers and politicians, and also by entrepreneurs and investors, by local developments workers, and by citizens themselves,” said Sri Mulyani Indrawati, Managing Director of the World Bank. “New technologies such as the internet, mobile telephones, and social networks create opportunities for unlocking the power of our data and translating statistics into knowledge and action.”

Both Portugal and Indrawati also acknowledged the good collaboration between the IMF and the Word Bank, particularly in setting international statistical standards. In addition, the two institutions have a very well established collaboration on the International Comparison Program, which has helped improve comparability of data across countries.

Pressing and diverse challenges

Eduardo Sojo, Chief Statistician for Mexico, said that, in addition to emphasizing the vast achievements and improvements in the availability and quality of statistics, World Statistics Day should also be an occasion to recognize the challenges faced by national statistical offices.

Sojo: “National statistical offices need to find better ways to compile, process, and store the ‘sea of information’ that is generated in today’s technologically advanced world” (photo: IMF)

Sojo outlined “pressing challenges” in seven key areas:

Information overload. National statistical offices need to find better ways to compile, process, and store the “sea of information” that is generated in today’s technologically advanced world.

New players. National data providers need to devise constructive ways to differentiate official statistics from other sources, but without challenging or undermining the capabilities of “external players.”

Global perspective. Developing statistical information with a global perspective requires having an adequate infrastructure to transfer information across borders. But measurement standards must also be harmonized to allow statistical agencies on both sides to interpret the data accurately.

Subnational entities. Another challenge is to provide more relevant information on local entities.

Social networks. There is a need to understand who the “customers” of statistical offices are, where they are, and what they need, Sojo said. This will require using nontraditional means to communicate with them, such as Facebook and Twitter, as also mentioned by Indrawati.

Timely information. National statistical agencies need to be more responsive to the “velocity” of our changing world. The use of flash indicators and sentiment surveys can help in this regard.

Personal data. Statistical agencies need to update their security systems to ensure the confidentiality of personal data.

Need to recognize all statistical agencies

Pronab Sen, former Chief Statistician for India and now Principal Adviser of India’s Planning Commission, agreed with Sojo on the challenges faced by official statisticians, but mentioned one additional challenge—that official statisticians should be careful not to become part of the problem. “As official statisticians, it is our duty and responsibility to be part of the solution of development and economic management of a country,” he stressed.

Sen: “As official statisticians, it is our duty and responsibility to be part of the solution of development and economic management of a country” (photo: IMF)

Sen gave an extreme example to make his point. If official statisticians were to publish certain sensitive data in real time, the effects on economic systems could be “disastrous” because “this would create officially induced herd behavior.” He therefore suggested placing safeguards on official statisticians to avoid such extreme situations from ever happening.

“Game-changing” data initiative

Angus Deaton, a Professor at Princeton University and former President of the American Economic Association, offered some insights from the users’ perspective.

He mentioned a number of successful statistical initiatives that have drastically changed how one measures “the world of well-being.” In his view, the two most important programs that have greatly expanded content in welfare statistics “beyond income” are the International Comparison Program, developed in 2005, and the Open Data Initiative, launched by the World Bank in April 2010.

In particular, Deaton referred to the Open Data Initiative—a new data policy that opens World Bank public datasets to all users free of charge (for example, all the data in World Development Indicators)—as a “game changer.” According to Deaton, increasing access to information also has the added benefit of improving data quality. Datasets like the Open Data Initiative and the International Comparison Program “have changed our view of the world, particularly on inequality,” he said.

Deaton: Datasets like the Open Data Initiative and the International Comparison Program “have changed our view of the world, particularly on inequality” (photo: IMF)

Despite these improvements, Deaton noted that we need more consistent data on mortality rates around the world. “In a world with HIV/AIDs and where health is becoming a big target around the world, we don’t have the basic data that we need to monitor what is happening,” he noted. National accounts data is also weak in many poor countries, which can lead to overestimation of growth, Deaton stressed.

Shaida Badiee, Director of the World Bank’s Development Data Group, emphasized that there is a need to invest in the statistical capacity of low-income countries, including those emerging from conflict and with other special needs.

In closing remarks, Adelheid Burgi-Schmelz, Director of the IMF’s Statistics Department, nicely summed up the session by noting that: “We have plenty of reasons to be proud of all the relevant and high quality statistics that are being produced every day all over the world to provide transparency, to monitor progress of societies, and to help shape policies around the globe.”