Trust in data: “If you build it, they will come”

Hernán D. Muñoz , Cepei

It may be redundant to say at this point that trust plays a central role in the production and use of data. During times of pandemic, data has been at the center of the scene. Problems of consistency, timeliness and comparability of the data have created, in many cases, skepticism in the population, which in turn, affected the effectiveness of government's response actions. These experiences revalue the role played by the recommendations of good practices for the production and dissemination of data, especially in strengthening credibility. Trust is not something that magically appears, and its construction requires clear rules, perseverance and time.

During my professional career, I have had the opportunity to be in different roles within the data and statistical communities. Currently, I collaborate with Cepei, a Global South think tank, which advocates for better data for sustainable development. I have learned that civil society plays a fundamental role in making things happen. The public agenda is broad and intense, and data is rarely at the top of the list.

But my first steps in data production was generating non-official key indicators as CPI and GDP from the academy, at a time when the official information produced by the National Statistical Office (NSO) of Argentina was not reliable. The widespread use of unofficial information during almost a decade in this country, is a good case study to understand that users are the ones who define what is the main information they will use. If we build trust, they will use the data regardless of whether it was produced in an official or unofficial environment. A few years later, I had the opportunity to be part of the management team that led the rebuilding of the NSO of Argentina. The quick return of users back to official statistics confirmed that when it comes to trust, it is true that "if you build it, they will come".

Something that I noticed while representing the NSO in different international forums, is that the official statistical community and the rest of the data community were virtually disconnected. In 2017, I co-chaired the program committee (PC) of the first United Nations World Data Forum (WDF) that was held in South Africa. The UNWDF was conceived as a meeting place between data and statistics communities, so that more ambitious objectives can be achieved from joint work. The data revolution implied the existence of a fertile ground for the proliferation of data and new stakeholders that claimed a place in the information ecosystem to account for the sustainable development agenda. For the first UNWDF, a very diverse PC set up a very interesting and intense schedule of sessions. But many of the controversies in which both communities found themselves, converged in the design of the program. The UNSD team was very supportive so that all ideas could be landed successfully.

Discussions continued in a similar vein in Dubai, during the 2nd UNWDF. Then there was also an interesting conversation between data and official statistics communities and positions came much closer. I participated in one of the main panels on the presentation of the book “Who wants to know? The political economy of statistical capacities” published by the Interamerican Development Bank (IDB), trying to make visible the circumstances faced by statistical offices, especially in developing countries, where data sometimes represent a threat to political power and incentives to capacity building are not always present. All these conclusions are perfectly expressed in the IDB book, which I think is a must for anyone who wants to understand why NSOs tend to be sometimes conservative and reluctant to interact with other institutions when they do not have a solid position of independence. The sets of recommendations of the international quality frameworks are a determining factor in guiding and underpinning the National Statistical Systems, especially due to the indispensable role assigned to independence in the production of statistics. Politicians change, and the important role of good statistical practices needs to be constantly re-explained. Therefore, efforts should not be spared in the dissemination of good practices, not only within the statistical community, but also towards policy makers and the key actors in the network of producers and users of statistics (media, academia, private sector, civil society, etc.). In this sense, the lessons learned in the official statistical community on building trust can be crucial for non-traditional sources to consolidate its acceptance by users, so that the catchphrase of the title of this blog becomes a reality.

The COVID-19 pandemic has, in many ways, become a hinge of our era. Modernization in data production had been progressively progressing, but the incorporation of novel elements accelerated decisively with the pandemic as a catalyst. This trend is likely to consolidate in the times to come. Therefore, this virtual UNWDF finds us facing a unique opportunity to work together so that improvements have a homogeneous impact between countries, following the premise of leaving no one behind.