Trends in national data ecosystems in times of COVID-19

'Freedom from fear could be said to sum up the whole philosophy of human rights', said the late UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold. Right now we’re all living in uncertainty and fear of a new virus with no cure.

Data is a life or death issue, and the COVID-19 pandemic has made that clearer than ever, as governments around the world are scrambling to understand and fight the highly contagious virus that has devasted the lives of millions of people with appalling speed. Just as data is critical for effective policymaking in more “normal” times, good data is absolutely necessary for policymakers trying to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and keep people safe.

Comprehensive data on testing have proven to be critical tools for governments to identify hotspots, track cases, and understand trends. Data on health and demographic and social trends has been key in understanding the underlying drivers of the disease and identifying those who are most at risk. And data on the socio-economic impact has been essential to develop and adapt social programs to reach those in need and start planning for a recovery that leads to a safer, more equal, inclusive and sustainable world for all. And strong and well-integrated systems to manage these data are now essential to ensure they are properly vetted and readily accessible and usable by policy and decision makers.

The pandemic has accelerated three trends among the public, politicians, and statisticians, that can pave the way for a post-COVID world that is built with good evidence and information:

  1. The public is captivated by data. Suddenly everyone wants numbers. Numbers in the media: a BBC radio program focused on data and statistics has seen its run extended twice due to popular demand. Numbers from official sources: visits to the UK’s Office of National Statistics website from social media have increased 1400% compared to this time last year, and views of the actual data are up by nearly 400%. Numbers showing comparisons between countries: the Our World in Data website saw its users increase from 2 million before COVID hit to around 15 million during the last few months.

    The challenge will be to retain this interest when the pandemic fades. People should expect that policy decisions that affect their lives are always based on good data and evidence, and that sufficient data is openly available to hold governments to account. But collecting data and making it available to the public takes resources. Data is often politically unattractive as an investment, as it immediate and long-term returns are not easily understood and valued and as sometimes it tells the government uncomfortable truths. But confident and competent governments invest money on data as a priority in order to be able to plan effectively, correct course when necessary, and achieve results. So it is important that people continue to care about data, and to demand data, to create incentives for public investment in the production and use of data for good policy and decision-making.

  2. Statisticians are getting a seat at the table. Statisticians are now increasingly involved in government decision-making, as politicians appreciate data’s critical role in informing and guiding their efforts to fight the pandemic. Heads of national statistical offices have been invited into the heart of decision-making around the world, and their expertise is in demand to provide the information that governments depend on.

    This too is something that the post-pandemic world must retain. If independent, rigorous, data is to be at the service of government decision-making, then the stewards of that data need to be in the room – to understand needs, to explain the meaning and limits of the data, and to ensure they can ask for and receive the resources they need. If the pandemic has enhanced the political influence of statisticians, we will all benefit.

  3. Statisticians are working harder and smarter. COVID-19 has put a premium on timely data, thus accelerating innovation and collaboration, and increasing the use of new methods and data sources to provide the statistics that are needed.

Around the world, statisticians have been working at warp speed to produce an accurate, timely picture of trends in health, the economy, and social welfare, giving politicians the information they need for real-time decision making. Sixty-two per cent of countries worldwide have launched new data collection efforts to monitor the impact of COVID-19 and over 50 per cent have set up platforms to serve public data needs during the pandemic. Existing data tools have been repurposed to fulfill the immediate needs for data, including phone and web surveys, better use of administrative data and integration of data from social media, phone call records and crowdsourcing.

Statisticians aren’t just collecting new data. They are also working in new ways of processing, analyzing and communicating it, and assuming new roles in connecting diverse communities to facilitate the creation, sharing and use of high-quality data. There’s more collaboration with other parts of government, such as ministries of health, and with non-government partners from the private sector and academia. And the increased use of innovative technologies and sources of data—including from the private sector--has required that NSOs step up to play new functions to help protect privacy and ensure data quality.

These changes have been coming for a long time, and many statistics officers were already enthusiastic users of new data, but the pandemic has moved this trend up a level. The opportunity, after the COVID-19 crisis is over, is to keep up the levels of responsiveness and timeliness with which statisticians have risen to the occasion, and to build strong data systems that can produce timely, quality data that serve the public good.

But while changes in some countries are showing the way to better data, this pandemic has struck a blow to the data system in many countries. Nine out of ten national statistical offices in low- and middle-income countries have had difficulties operating because of funding constraints, with more than half having had funding cuts. It’s harder to innovate with no broadband and no trained data scientists. Part of dealing with the aftermath of COVID-19 will mean undoing the damage of the last few months, as well as fast forwarding those trends we want to keep.

The COVID-19 pandemic has put data and statistics at the centre of policy making. For people who believe in decisions based on evidence and information, this is good news, and something to retain in the aftermath. The last few months have given us a public that care about data, a politics that welcomes data, and data that meet the needs of now.

Alongside recovery we must strive for reform – to collectively pay for what we value so that data producers can sustainably strengthen the data systems upon which we rely to monitor the health and wellbeing of the world. This is a future to build towards.