Promoting data use: a key challenge for statisticians

Data, in and of itself, is useless unless it significantly and extensively contributes to informing key public and private decisions. But promoting data use is one of the greatest challenge faced by statisticians working either in national or international organizations, for several reasons. While data producers are entities easy to identify and target, data users are a scattered, heterogeneous group, which are often isolated from decision-making processes. Moreover, there is a persistent communication gap between data producers and data users, in general, and more particularly, between the statistical community and the policy-making community.

As a result, comprehensive strategies for supporting countries in better using available statistics are not normally promoted. According to the 2016 Evaluation of the UN system work on statistical capacity development for the MDGs, prepared by the Joint Inspection Unit, the UN system had essentially focused its assistance on building national capacities for data production, rather than supporting data use. And the situation has not significantly improved since then.

There are multiple underlying factors that may explain this state of affairs. One key factor is that the available data are often not relevant to users. Data are usually outdated and not available at the required level of disaggregation, and are thus unable to provide actionable intelligence for governments to take effective measures for addressing complex sustainable development challenges. A second important reason is that these indicators – even when collected at a huge cost for the country – are not being properly disseminated. For example, the vast majority of microdata on food and agriculture collected through national surveys or censuses remains locked in institutional silos, and are often made available in non-reusable formats. This situation largely stems from a weak dissemination culture in National Statistical Systems, as well as a misunderstanding of the concept of data protection and data confidentiality. A third and related factor is that, generally, data is not being transformed into useful information, which, in turn, is mainly due to the weak analytical capacity of National Statistical Offices. Most NSOs still believe that their main mandate is just to produce data – rather than to analyze and present them in ways that are accessible to non-expert users. As a result, they generally lack the capacity to disseminate key messages to inform policy-decisions.

All these factors combined lead to the vicious cycle of low quality supply of agricultural and rural statistics; limited use of statistics in planning and policy formulation; and limited resource allocated to statistics and data collections.

In order to address the data-use-challenge, international organizations, and in particular, the UN system, need to develop a tailored approach for the different groups of data users, with targeted initiatives to help the intended end-user analyse and interpret the statistical information published by national statistical agencies.

Some important recent initiatives are paving the way towards this objective. FAO’s Food and Agriculture Microdata Catalogue is increasing microdata dissemination and expanding it beyond household surveys to agricultural census and surveys, whereas the 50by2030 Initiative is providing grants for producing research papers. We need to go a step further, however, as researchers are already the main users of microdata and their findings do not always easily permeate into policy-making.

To foster the use of data and statistics for effective policy-making we need to target:

  • The media, which has a key intermediary role in distilling key messages from technical reports, translating raw data into useful information, and focusing attention on certain topics that can appeal to policy-makers and the wider public.
  • NSOs, which need to go beyond the traditional confines of disseminating figures and statistical yearbooks to also become data intermediaries, by producing analytical reports, headline indicators, and press releases with policy-oriented key messages, all of which add value to underlying data. NSOs should also be helped to embrace open data, deal with data protection & privacy in a way that doesn’t obstruct data dissemination, and establish platforms that can facilitate the communication between data producers and data users. Last but not least, they need to be brought more into the policy-making arena so that the type of reports they produce – and the timing of release of these reports – are much more in tune with contemporary political debates, while retaining, of course, their institutional independence in order to continue their role as a trusted, impartial provider of statistical data.
  • And finally we need to target the wider public. With better analysis and key messages by the Media and revamped NSOs, with targeted social media campaigns and improved databases that offer an expanded range of data visualizations, headline indicators and analytic tools, the public itself can become an enhanced data user, and therefore a more conscientious voter, that in turn, can lead to more sensible policy and decision-making.

Tackling all the different kinds of users in a tailored way multiplies costs, though, so we also need a mechanism to prioritize our actions and rationalize our investments, by focusing our interventions on the data intermediaries. Moreover, the data literacy and data analytics training components, tailored to different data users, should be integrated into all large statistical capacity development programmes, as the 50by2030 Initiative has started to do (see Global Data Use Conference 2021).