Official statistics – Another global challenge
By Ola Awad
President of International Association for Official Statistics and the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics
information and Communication Technology has touched the life of everyone and everything on this planet. Official statistics have been advanced by this development mainly in areas of data production, dissemination, documentation and data analysis. Yet, what is called ‘big data’ is expected to transform the foundations and methods of official statistics to a degree that is unpredictable at this time. The term ‘big data’ refers to data from GPS devices, teller machines, scanning devices, sensors, mobile phones, satellites and social media.
The official statistics community has already started exploring the potential of ‘big data’ with both enthusiasm and reluctance as well. The exploration process is both time and resource driven. Individual experiments and collective initiatives shall shed more light on the potential of ‘big data’ to transform official statistics.
From the perspectives of ‘liberal’ statisticians, ‘big data’ is an opportunity as it is a potential source of timely data at minimal cost. This of course touches on the ever-growing concerns of official statistics providers due to increasing government cuts. The big challenge remains to have the skills and tools to choose the relevant data from the vast volume that is characterised by variety and velocity.
As for ‘conservative’ statisticians, ‘big data’ will certainly destroy the essence of current practices of official statistics that is shaped by standards, methods, legislations, privacy, quality and others. When it comes to data accessibility, the issues of data confidentiality and privacy have been notorious as barriers for the further development of official statistics. These barriers will not vanish as ‘big data’ demands greater access to what has been long viewed as private by citizens and confidential by government legislators. However, some still criticise the official statistics community for giving greater weight to privacy than to accessibility in the traditional production process.
How ‘big data’ will change the current practices of official statistics providers remains to be seen.
The debate among conservative and liberal statisticians on the potential of ‘big data’ shall continue to accelerate for years to come. There will always be two views on this very important subject and this is very beneficial to official statistics. Both sides acknowledge the potential (opportunity versus threat) of ‘big data’ and the importance of in-depth evaluation of its merits. But there are other opinions that must be taken into consideration.
The debate needs to expand to include government legislators, private data providers, civil society, research and academic institutions and others to ensure different views are generated to reach middle ground on this important issue. The challenge of ‘big data’ is that data ownership crosses government sovereignty compared to administrative records.
In addition, the argument about cost effectiveness needs to be further verified since we have not yet listened to the viewpoint of data providers who might consider this as an opportunity for profits.
The debate on ‘big data’ is still in its early stages and many views need to be unveiled. This necessitates wider participation in the discussion at various national, regional and international levels. New types of partnership are needed at the debate level, as well as on the implementation side. The issue of data ownership needs to be settled.
Traditional boundaries of official statistics need to be redrawn. The standards that regulate current practices of official statistics need to be thoroughly re-standardised to maintain comparability. Even the term official statistics might need re-consideration as well.
For the next ten years, parts of ‘big data’ will be used to supplement current data sources for official statistics. It is expected that such practice will be applied in selected countries where conditions allow.
These conditions include IT infrastructure, flexible government regulations, partnerships between government and private sectors, data flow protocols and others.
Mrs. Ola Awad has been the President of the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics since 2009, and the President-Elect of the International Association for Official Statistics (IAOS).
Mrs. Awad took the responsibility of different positions and participated effectively in the development of PCBS to be as one of the leading statistical institutions in the region. She is an active and effective member in several national and international associations and research institutes.
Mrs. Awad is currently joining a Doctorate program of Business Administration and Management at Liverpool University. She holds an Honorary Doctorate in “Management, Training, Statistical Research and Planning at the Level of International Cooperation”, two Masters: one in Business Administration and Management from Boston University and the second in Applied Statistics from Birzeit University and a Bachelor degree in Economics from Birzeit University.