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Fact or fiction: How one’s perspective of data influences decision-making

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I had the privilege of attending the Seventh Meeting of the Statistical Commission for Africa held online from October 13-15, 2020 that was sponsored by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (ECA).  The meeting assembled Heads of African National Statistical Offices from member states; and statistics and policy experts from various organizations. The goal was to develop solutions to enhance the resilience of African national statistical systems to meet data needs during the Decade of Action in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Connecting online in an age of COVID-19 may have some limitations, but despite technical challenges for some member states, the experts laid out their knowledge, expertise, challenges and opportunities for growth, debating the disparities in resources and infrastructure to supporting data creation, collection, analysis and data use. As a community of statisticians and policy makers, the interaction was mutually supportive and empathetic, leaving no doubt about their commitment to accuracy, relevance, trustworthiness, and utility of data. Each representative had a clear strategic plan for data – all in a context of ongoing massive innovations in technology and an exponential growth of information and data.

As the evolution of disciplines such as data science, data analytics, and so forth continues to grow, organizations, firms, and individuals are forming their own data analytics departments churning out information and interactive data dashboards that provide information in near-real-time. What became clear in the sharing of experiences across the community of statisticians was the need to constantly sift the wood for the trees and ensure the needs of stakeholders remain core to the data ecosystem. Innovation in data creation, collection, analyses, and fancy data dashboards provide great visuals, and this is important for adaptability and uptake. But data users at all levels should never stop interrogating what they see. In an age of COVID-19 and the uncertainties around the pandemic, the centrality of data is intertwined with the need to constantly interrogate it, going back to basics and asking very key questions about the nature and utility of the data.

Furthermore, living in an interconnected world, where trade, value chains, access to markets and decisions to fly or partake in tourism impact on the lives of ordinary Africans, we rely on policy-makers to guide the decision-making process. If ordinary stakeholders are to be well served, then we must also seek to understand some of the resistance to making decisions based on sound data that we have seen during the course of the pandemic. It might seem baffling to our community of statisticians, but when data is viewed as fiction, it implies that the stakeholder viewing it does not trust it on the basis of its nature or its utility.

This fiction position is quite dangerous – it fuels fake news, conspiracy theories and disinformation. For this reason, in a time of a serious pandemic, when data is paramount to making decisions to save lives; reinvent economies; find safe ways to keep our economies, transportation, education and many other sectors alive, new ways of engaging stakeholders, communicating decisions supported by valid and reliable data are needed. Data experts are there to break down and analyze data. Experts also need to find ways to engender trust among stakeholders and involve them in the creation and interpretation of data. Doing so becomes easier to communicate the facts, increase trust and make informed decisions.

On this Africa Statistics Day, as we navigate through this new reality and modernize our data systems, the need to remember the nature and utility of data to provide stakeholders with what is relevant, what is valid and what is trustworthy will be key to managing the inevitable fall outs of the COVID-19 pandemic. Doing so should stop the data-as-fiction narrative at the door.

By Dr. Mwarumba Mwavita

The author is the Director, Center for Educational Research and Evaluation and Associate Professor at Oklahoma State University where he teaches evaluation, measurement and statistics. He researches STEM, accountability and policy evaluation, multilevel methods and longitudinal data analysis; and in Kenya, offers lectures at Strathmore and Moi Universities.

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