The land where statisticians are cool

© Mbongiseni Mndebele

Cape Town, South Africa – There aren’t many countries in the world where the Statistician-General is treated like a rock star, but South Africa is one of them.

The SG, as Pali Lehohla is known throughout government and beyond it, looks the part: he’s got a huge personality and most days he sports a canary yellow suit. Thankfully, the rock star analogy also extends to his work; the SG and his team are a key part of the South African government’s game-changing work to collect and use data to drive the country’s development.

Much of that work was on display this week at the World Data Forum in Cape Town, hosted by Statistics South Africa and various UN bodies. More than 1,000 people gathered here for three days, learning and planning how to better unleash the power of data for development.

Before the Forum, I was asked to write a blog about my hopes for the event. I duly made my wish list and – in the spirit of data transparency and closing the feedback loop – I’m here to report back on how the three items on the list fared:

Standing up for the potential of data to directly drive results.
There were a few stand-out examples of data being used as more than a measurement tool. One, from Brazil, involved Facebook and UNICEF working together with social media data to improve Zika prevention efforts. Another effort, this time using education system administrative data, strengthened government accountability in Zambia. In these cases, data were living up to their potential as agents of change. Several speakers explicitly acknowledged the potential of data to drive results but, overall, there were just a few cases that stood out as concrete testimony to that potential. There is more great work like this already out in the world; much more of it should be documented and shared so that we can learn what good looks like.

Giving at least as much attention to the use of data as to the collection of it.
Many of the 1,000+ folks assembled in Cape Town came from national statistical offices. They brought decades of collective wisdom on censuses, surveys and government data systems. It’s perhaps understandable, then, that there was a heavy focus on the collection, analysis and coordination of data. Geospatial tools and open data platforms, in particular, received a tremendous amount of attention.

The increasing availability and accessibility of data were clearly on display. Whether those data were actually being used, however, was too rarely a topic of conversation. The universe of available data is expanding too rapidly for us to delay the discussion of use any longer. Going forward, our data meetings and investments have to be structured with data use at the fore.

Tell the stories of real lives that have been impacted by good work with data.
The Forum told half of this story compellingly. There was a slew of sessions dedicated to making sure that every person was counted. Advocates for children outside of family care, persons with disabilities, and other historically disadvantaged groups forcefully made the case for including every person in official statistics. The dangers of being excluded from data were quite clear.

The other side of the story, though, was missing. The personal, individual-level stories of being included in – and benefiting from – data were not told. Going forward, this human face will determine whether data work is funded, is politically supported and ultimately lives up to its potential. We must find the individuals impacted by good data work and tell their stories. They deserve it and the success of future data work depends on it.

In the end, I didn’t quite get all the items on my wish list, but I ended up with some unexpected presents as well. Government representatives spoke passionately about the need – and work already ongoing – to make more data available to their citizens. Private sector representatives clearly explained that their ethical and business interests are aligned to support data partnerships. Powerful displays of data potential were all around. All told, the meeting made huge strides toward its stated goal of harnessing the power of data for development.

© Mbongiseni Mndebele

As the Forum came to a close, the Statistician-General handed off a traditional drum (the symbol of Stats SA) to representatives from the United Arab Emirates, which will host the next Forum in two years’ time. It was a great reminder that we all have the responsibility to beat the drum to promote good data work – even if we can’t rock a yellow suit quite as well as South Africa’s SG.