Interview with Pali Lehohla

What do you expect from the first-ever United Nations World Data Forum? What outcomes would you like to see?

Statistics is a conduit of trust. It is a currency that holds a global promise for Transparency, Results, Accountability, Sustainability and Transformation (TRAST). It therefore creates the possibility and can facilitate global peace, progress and prosperity. It is for this reason that post-World War II, when the paragon of world peace, the United Nations, was established, statistics was central to it. From the very first-ever United Nations World Data Forum that will be held in Cape Town from 15-18 January 2017, I have two messages. First I expect that society in its entirety should understand the value and beauty of statistics, and that without society as collective respondents and purveyors and actors on data, without statistics and measurement, without high-quality statistical evidence, without appropriate indicators to communicate the evidence, without informed issue identification and informed policy action for results and remedy, and without the statisticians themselves, the world does not have an information system for any form of development, let alone sustainable development. The second message is especially crucial for first and foremost statisticians themselves, so that they realize their historical call. To be of service to global peace, progress and prosperity, statisticians must transform. The only way statistics can be useful is by engaging actively with the purveyors and politics of policy making and makers, academia, geoscience and locational technology, NGOs, technology, finance, media and citizenry.

As a statistician, what do you see as the main challenges and opportunities we have for how to use data in the service of sustainable development?

One major challenge is to realize this vision of "you are because I am and we are," that is the global Ubuntu; each one counts and therefore it counts to be counted. In many poor countries registration of the beginning, living and demise of life is woefully inadequate. Censuses of the population and population models are poor substitutes for a properly functioning civil registration and vital statistics (CRVS) system in countries. In Africa, from 2010 we initiated a vibrant CRVS movement, although it waned and now it is in dire need of a life-saving jab. It however still remains a pioneering act. Another challenge is to understand that without geographic or spatial attributes, statistical tables count for very little. At an analytical level, geographically weighted regression has demonstrated the instrumentality of spatio-temporal determinants in policy design and implementation. And this calls for the application of detailed geography for a differentiated approach to influence appropriate policy outcomes. For this to happen, disaggregation of phenomena into its atomic attributes is not only desirable but it is mandatory. In human populations this disaggregation would be by age, sex, disability, employment status, school attendance, education level, income and all this by space across time in order to leave no one behind.

All these challenges require capacity and resources -- to improve current methods and to find ways to incorporate new data sources. It is all an opportunity as well -- because of the framework created by the Millennium Development Goals, we made a lot of progress on statistics at the national level around the world, and now we will make even more progress, in ways we can't even imagine.

Why is South Africa hosting the Forum at this time?

Well, I like to think that South Africa is a leader in the field of statistics, certainly among developing countries, but globally as well. And we are in a fairly unique position. We are well aware of the challenges that many developing countries, particularly those in Africa, have faced in building up their statistical systems -- and we have set frontier programmes advocating for better statistics systems on the continent. And at the same time, we have a dynamic private sector and technological know-how, so we are open to innovation and the newest trends in a field that is changing by leaps and bounds. I think we can be an effective bridge in building better collaboration between the world of administrative records, survey methods and modern networked systems of recording. South Africa is a natural choice as my country released me to serve on the 25-person team that advised the UN Secretary-General on the Data Revolution, and South Africa hosted the outreach programme that was driven by Ms. Amina Mohammed, the then Special Advisor to the UN Secretary-General on SDGs. Cape Town is naturally beautiful and South Africa is welcoming. Louis Armstrong (Sachmo) the legendary Black American artist, in his song "Summer Day" says love to him is like a summer day, so come to Cape Town and witness ships drifting round the bend, data noises from the swimming hole and just enjoy the summer day, and perhaps you will be inspired in believing that a different and a better world is possible. In January Cape Town is a beautiful place to invite the world to visit!

Everyone seems to be working on data these days. What do you see as the value-added of this Forum as distinct from other data initiatives?

There are two crucial words in the name of the United Nations World Data Forum, and those two words are "United Nations". Because this is an event under the auspices of the United Nations, as agreed by the UN Statistical Commission, I think we have a number of strengths we can leverage to deliver good outcomes.

First, the UN connection gives us convening power. We have a very strong link with the network of national statistical offices that the Statistical Commission works with, who we hope will get involved in a significant way. We have the support of UN system organizations with large-scale data capacity -- important international organizations such as the World Bank and UNICEF, not to mention the UN Statistics Division that is acting as the secretariat for the Forum. And so many of the major players in the data field who are working on innovative projects are affiliated in some way with the UN, like the Global Pulse or branches of the UN that reach out to the private sector, academia and civil society. The UN is a major connector among all these players, and the Forum can draw on that.

Second, the fact that the Forum arises out of an agreement by the UN Statistical Commission gives us a strong link to the mechanisms to ensure good and appropriate data governance, as risks to data governance are the Achilles heel of the SDGs' most crucial threat to collation and use of evidence. The UN Statistical Commission is the body that will ultimately decide on how to integrate new data sources, how to protect privacy and confidentiality and how to set the necessary new standards. It also gives us a close link to the Sustainable Development Goals indicator process and the challenges we face to find out-of-the-box ways to use statistics and data and fill in the data gaps to measure progress on all the 169 targets and guide policy decisions needed to achieve them. Even though the Forum does not have an official mandate to feed into the UN deliberations on the SDG indicators and methodologies, I think the link with the UN and the Commission will be a key value-added element in drawing people to collaborate and deliver results in Cape Town, since there is every possibility that those ideas, those initiatives, those solutions will wind up reflected in the UN SDG process.

You’re known for quoting poetry as well as statistics. Do you have any poetic reflections for the UN World Data Forum?

"Global prayer for application of UN fundamental principles of official statistics "

This Forum is a deep search for honesty and stability. Perhaps through learning by doing, accepting limitations and embedding ethics-based governance can the geometry, contents and actors in this matrimonial room of statistics and data provide for a long life of happy and healthy generations. This future generation will aspire for, admire and actively promote the production and use of high-quality statistics through technologically sound and more efficient methods and transparent financing for better and fair policy outcomes, and perhaps in their endeavour live our dream and save the world from us and from themselves.

Editor's note: This is a shortened version of the original interview, excerpts of which have been propagated in national newspapers in South Africa.