Building Trust in Data and Statistics

"Trust arrives walking and departs riding" -- A Dutch Proverb

The UN World Data Forum 2018 promises to be an exciting event, bringing together communities of data users and producers, researchers, and policy makers. It is a unique UN-led undertaking. Over three days, from 22 to 24 October, we will all be "data people" and regarded as equals, no matter our organizational affiliation. We will all have a voice and an opportunity to share our expertise and vision for a better world served by better data.

Like the first UN World Data Forum, the 2018 Forum is organized around themes. Theme 5 is Building Trust in Data and Statistics. This topic is very important and, of particular interest and relevance today, as the specter of "fake news" and "alternative facts" looms around us. More than ever, we need to build trust in data throughout the data value chain, from production and analysis to dissemination and use, data is impacting decisions that affect the lives of all people. The Forum will be a great occasion to discuss what it takes to achieve this goal.

So, what do we need to discuss at the Forum? Let's start by thinking about what the data ecosystem of 2030 could look like -- both what we want to achieve but also what we want to avoid -- and use that as a guide to identify the issues we need to address at the Forum.

What do we want for a 2030 data ecosystem?

Hope to achieve: A world where data are part of the DNA and culture of decision-making, used by all and valued as an important public good. A world where citizens trust the systems that produce data and have the skills and means to use and verify their quality and accuracy. A world where there are safeguards in place to protect privacy, while bringing the benefits of open data to all. In this world, countries value their national statistical systems, which are working independently with trusted partners in the public and private sectors and citizens to continuously meet the changing and expanding demands from data users and policy makers. Private sector data generators are generously sharing their data with public sector. And gaps in data are closing, making the dream of "leaving no one behind" come true, with SDG goals on the path to being met by 2030.

Hope to avoid: A world where large corporations control the bulk of national and international data and statistics with only limited sharing with the public sector, academics, and citizens. The culture of every man for himself and who pays, wins, dominates data sharing practices. National statistical systems are under-resourced and under-valued, with low trust from users, further weakening them and undermining their independence from political interference and their ability to control quality. The divide between those who have and those who do not have access, skills, and the ability to use data for decision-making and policy has widened. Data systems and their promise to count the uncounted and "leave no one behind" are falling behind due to low capacity and poor standards and institutions, and the hope of the 2030 agenda is fading.

With this vision in mind, are we on the right path? An optimist would say we are closer to the data ecosystem that we want to achieve. However, there are also some examples of movement in the wrong direction. There is no magic wand to make our wish come true, but a powerful enabler would be building trust in data and statistics. Therefore, this should be included as a goal in all our data strategies and action plans.

Here are some important building blocks underlying trust in data and statistics:

  1. Building strong organizational infrastructure, governance, and partnerships;
  2. Following sound data standards and principles for production, sharing, interoperability, and dissemination; and
  3. Addressing the last mile in the data value chain to meet users' needs, create value with data, and ensure meaningful impacts

Building Trust in Data and Statistics

I encourage all our expert colleagues and partners to propose relevant and vibrant sessions for theme 5 of the 2018 Forum and share their expertise widely. At the previous Forum, we had twelve sessions on open data, data interoperability, data standards, and principles, which launched many important initiatives. As we take stock of our progress and make ambitious plans for the future, we must keep in the mind the responsibility we all share to demonstrate that we work in the public interest and that the public's trust in data and statistics is justified.

Trust is not easy to achieve or maintain, but it is easy to lose. The path to the data ecosystem we want for 2030, is a path that leads to trust in this ecosystem.

Shaida Badiee, is a co-founder and managing director of Open Data Watch, an NGO focused on monitoring and promoting open data in national statistical offices. She is a member of the Programme Committee for the UNWDF 2018.