The importance of official statistics

This year’s maxim is ‘Look at the facts – Better Data, Better Lives’. To achieve better quality data we require the co-operation of everyone; households, firms and governmen

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By Keith Grech

Keith Grech is head of the Malta Statistics Authority Secretariat • keith.grech@gov.mt

20 October has become synonymous with European Statistics Day which emphasises the importance of official statistics in society, and compliments the United Nations World Statistics Day, celebrated every five years.

Statistics day was inaugurated by these international institutions with the objective of illustrating the importance of official statistics and its usefulness in the process of decision making.

However, the publication of official statistics is possible thanks to the willingness of data owners, namely individuals, households, undertakings and government agencies that have trust in the National Statistics Office (NSO). Public policy studies attribute this underlying trust to the independence of the statistical offices.

Statistics as part of the human decision-making process

Statistics has become part of what political scientists refer to as explicit knowledge. It is articulated knowledge, expressed and recorded as words, numbers, codes, mathematical and scientific formulae.

Explicit knowledge involves processes to compile, store and communicate.

Its existence complements tacit knowledge, the human ability to relate information with experience, thinking skills, commitment and deed. The combination of explicit and tacit knowledge forms the basis of sound judgment.

The role of official statistics

Official statistics is by its very nature a public good, a good that is used by all and sundry. As no commercial undertakings will get involved in the production of official statistics due to lack of financial returns, it must be financed through public funding – taxes.

Departing from this theoretical definition, the process of official statistics is to collate information on several areas that affect our day to day lives and present them in a manner that everyone can understand, relate to and use in different decision-making environments. A look at the release calendar of the National Statistics Office (nso.gov.mt) reveals that it publishes a statistics news release almost every working day on topical social, economic and business themes.

As time goes by, publication deadlines between releases are becoming shorter to meet the demands of users. To date all news release deadlines have been respected. This is thanks to the tenacity of NSO employees and the effectiveness of its senior management.

The official statistics process is executed to an agreed working programme, ratified at a local and international level, and produced according to a stringent quality charter which is independent from any form of interference being political or otherwise.

In this process, the Malta Statistics Authority serves as a guardian to safeguard the independence of the National Statistics Office as prescribed in the Malta Statistics Authority Act.

As a sign of autonomy of statistical institutes, governments across Europe, including the Government of Malta, signed a declaration on the Commitment on Confidence in Statistics, ensuring that official statistics are produced in line with international methodologies and that statistical institutes are provided with adequate resources to meet their objectives and communicate their outputs while protecting the identity source of all statistical data providers.

What does the future hold?

A. Organisation structure

A 2018 publication by Eurostat by the name Power from Statistics: data, information and knowledge tried to answer this pertinent question. One of the papers within this publication was authored by the former Director General of Eurostat, Walter J. Radermacher who referred to the need to separate the mandates of the different actors of statistics:

Statistical Authority: Political responsibility and accountability;

Director General: Personal responsibility for the production process; and Chief Statistician: Co-ordinator of the Statistics System.

Within our local context, the role of the regulator is entrusted to the Malta Statistics Authority and the National Statistics Office is responsible for both co-ordination and the production process of official statistics.

B. Access to relevant data sources

Nobody can hold back progress and the future of statistics relies on timely access to big data, independent from its originating source being the public or private sector.

The term Big Data was coined in the recent past, as a result of information technological developments, that permit extremely large data sets to be analysed computationally to reveal patterns, trends, and associations, especially relating to human behaviour and interactions.

Data that is extremely important for the timeliness of official statistics is being generated and held by either government or enterprises. However, access to such data sources is only the start-off point.

The tapping of these data sources needs to be accompanied by statisticians with abilities and tools to perform these processes. Data produced through modelling is already happening and possibly will become standard practice in the future.

Moving from traditional data processing methods to the use of big data is not without its pitfalls. Hence the need to draft quality methods for big data processes is already within the hands of our methodologists.

C. Rethinking educational and work practices:

Economists, statisticians, mathematicians and information technology students are in short supply in the public and private sector alike.

Marketing strategies to attract more students into these subject areas are essential. Ideally courses in these areas are associated with practical job experience opportunities. The strong association between study and the workplace is important to encourage young students to choose these subjects.

D. Deciphering information

Statistics is essentially a public good and will remain so in the foreseeable future. Nowadays, special interest groups and firms have identified niches where they can publish specific statistics with the prospect of influencing the national agenda.

With the declining costs in communication and the speed that information can reach the final user, the need to educate the general public on how to read statistics is increasing in its importance. Furthermore, these alternative information data sources, may not be stringent enough to satisfy methodological rules and code of practice which a National Statistics Institute must follow.

These data satellites still do not have the capacity or trust to match the outputs of National Statistical Institutes. Moreover, the strength of our National Statistics Office lies in the fact that it forms part of the European Statistical System.

The long and outstanding collaboration of national statistical systems has also led to the formation of a global statistical system whose members use a common language to share their experiences and to promote official statistics at the global level.

One of the major achievements of official statistics at the global level has been the development of international methods and standards, which have ultimately enabled an international data collection and sharing platform through the application of such methods and standards at the national level and the subsequent production of comparable data at the regional and international levels.

Conclusion

This year’s maxim is ‘Look at the facts – Better Data, Better Lives’. To achieve better quality data we require the co-operation of everyone; households, firms and government.

On the other end, the compiler is obliged to process the raw information according to ethical and data protection parameters.

The drive behind statisticians is revealing links within social and business environments which provide decision makers with explicit knowledge to better lives.

The correct application of statistics supports the development of policy- oriented strategies for job creation, entrepreneurship, creativity and innovation.

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