Time to Make The Numbers Count

Science is increasingly important in policy making and quite rightly, scientific evidence receives intense scrutiny when it enters the public realm. While there is more to be done to ensure that the data used is as rigorous as possible, many existing practices and safeguards relevant to science could be applied to other types of data that are substandard but still used to underpin public policy.

Unless every country gathers and publishes reliable and comparable data, international comparisons of important measurements such as economic growth, life expectancies, chronic disease and biodiversity cannot be relied upon; nor can they form a foundation for action by governments or international agencies. Data not only vary between countries but often aren't available in the first place. The paucity of economic data in poor countries, particularly within Africa (where availability of household surveys has reportedly declined), makes it difficult to get an accurate picture of inequality and its prime drivers.

Now for the Long Term, a report issued last week, identifies one possible way to address the current gap in data quality in these areas. It proposes the creation of a new international agency, Worldstat, whose prime responsibility would be quality control of global statistics. Its remit would include assessing domestic practices, regulating misuse and improving the collection of data. Such an agency is very much needed.
The pressing challenges set out by The Oxford Martin Commission for Future Generations in Now for the Long Term will not be met if we continue to build public policy on misleading or partial data.

Unreliable or missing data is also a serious impediment to good political governance. Without reliable performance indicators, the effectiveness of governments and international organisations cannot be measured and it is impossible to create the right incentives for improvement. Such indicators focus attention on good governance, and on efforts to reduce corruption and waste. There are currently serious weaknesses in data quality; assessments are often based on distorted or subjective perceptions. Many indicators should come with a 'health warning' that emphasises their caveats and limitations.

Worldstat would seek to raise the quality of global statistics by monitoring practices, regulating misuse, and improving data collection. It would not be a substitute for existing institutions such as the United Nations Statistical Commission or the United Nations Statistics Division; these UN agencies would continue to promote statistical methodologies and standards that are suitable for the developed and developing worlds, facilitate international comparisons, and ensure that the data that is gathered is updated so that it remains relevant and appropriate. Worldstat would complement existing work by focusing on the implementation of agreed standards, and improving the capabilities for archiving and interpreting data, particularly in the developing world. As a separate entity with budget and resources on a scale comparable with the European Commission's Eurostat, Worldstat could also fast-track international efforts to adopt appropriate and robust indicators for sustainable development, and direct attention to capacity-building on this front. In the report, we highlight the need to create a "Long-Term Impact Index" that could comprehensively measure a country's long-term progress, ideally using data drawn from Worldstat and other collaborators.

Our work allowed us to identify the need for Worldstat but the next step is to work with existing organisations to decide how it could be funded, organised and to which bodies it would be accountable.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and The Oxford Martin Commission for Future Generations, in conjunction with the release of the latter's report, Now for the Long Term, published by the Oxford Martin School at the University of Oxford. The report's recommendations aim to break the gridlock that undermines attempts to address the world's biggest challenges; to bridge the gap between knowledge and action; and to redress the balance between short-term political pressures and a need to secure a sustainable, inclusive and resilient future. To see all the posts in the series, click here. For more information on the report, click here.