Unsung Heroes – Government Statisticians Who Need the Space to Be Honest

Author: Joyce Coffee

At a Social Capital Markets SOCAP 2014 panel in San Francisco in Fall 2014 about Resilience Investing Informed by Global Data I had the pleasure of presenting with Dr. Mirza Jahani, the CEO of the Aga Khan Development Network’s U.S. foundation.  The panel focused on data and the particular issue dealt with how to spend less money gathering data and more money using it to achieve better outcomes.

Dr. Jahani’s response – consider government statisticians – made me realize we may be looking at the solution right under the world’s green eye shade. Government statistics bureaus around the world offer treasure troves of both fine statistician and copious amounts of data (much of it on paper – the topic of a future post). These number crunchers know the issues confronting their countries intimately, both quantitatively and qualitatively, from their life experience and work. But they lack the resources to make those data transparent.

As many know, I’m a big proponent of free and open-source data.  But, perhaps I need to shift my emphasis. What if these government statisticians could say what actually was happening in their respective countries and share the data they have gathered directly and without intervention (regardless of the inference the world would draw from it)?    The prevailing belief is that many government statistics are suspect, because some countries lack capacity to gather or verify data and/or countries want to appear better (or sometimes worse) than they are for political or investment purposes.

If they possessed the clout so they could be honest with government data, we users could even say, “This data isn’t bad; let’s use it.” This would save implementers in every sector valuable time and money they can apply to their work on the ground.

From Dhaka Bangladesh to Kathmandu Nepal, from Chicago, USA to Aberdeen, UK, cities have opened up their data to the world, and even inspired titles for appointed posts. Consider “Chief Innovation Officer.” As a result, these enlightened governments gain the reward of better decisions made from better data and also reap a reputational boost for their transparency from citizens, other cities, and businesses and other institutions.

More governments should take a page from this book on how to manage a reputable statistics bureau. They then would empower their statisticians and data miners to give the world their most powerful currency: data.