Written by Giulio Sabbati.
Why do figures matter in today’s world? How do we build and maintain trust in data and statistics? In an era which has seen such an explosion of data, should we not talk about data communication rather than dissemination? What does good data mean? How can data influence policy-makers? Are data literacy and ethics related to each other?
These and other topics were raised during the European Parliamentary Research Service (EPRS) roundtable on ‘Statistics, Data and Trust: Why figures matter in today’s world’, held on 8 September 2021.
Vice-President of the European Parliament, Othmar Karas Introduced the event, which was moderated by Etienne Bassot, Director of the Members’ Research Service. The speakers were Mariana Kotzeva, Director General of EUROSTAT, Stefan Schweinfest, Director of the United Nations Statistics Division UNSTATS; Gaby Umbach, Director of GlobalStat and part-time Professor at the European University Institute (EUI); and Giulio Sabbati, Head of the Statistical and Data Visualisation Support Office, EPRS.
The composition of the roundtable could be compared to a statistical family. On one side were the data producers, represented by the UN and Eurostat, and on the other side data users in the shape of Globalstat and the EPRS Data Viz Office. And as a family, the participants all spoke the same language; that of statistics. In his introductory remarks, Mr Karas highlighted the importance of the UN fundamental principles of statistics and the European statistics code of practice. These are the global standards that statisticians need: to understand and to talk each other, and to learn from each other.
All the participants responded to the question in the roundtable’s title: why figures matter in today’s world? Being aware that figures are part of everyday life, as we often need to measure something to take actions, statistics are fundamental for making better informed decisions; official statistics are the foundation of any international information system; data are essential for collective political action; the use of statistics has become a political power resource, and access to and understanding of data is becoming more and more important.
Historically, statistics started with surveys, then that expanded to public administrative sources and now in today’s world we face an explosion of data. The data ecosystem is much broader now – not only with official and non-official statistics, but also for instance with big data, digital data and geospatial data.
It is true that more data means more information; but it also means attempts at disinformation, raises questions such as over respecting privacy, and also means there is much data which are not good. But what is good data? It could refer to objectivity, accuracy, relevance, transparency or timeliness. Good data are based on scientific solid production processes. Ultimately a good data item is one that is responsibly and effectively used.
Mr Karas insisted in his message on how data and statistics are nothing if we cannot trust them. But how do we gain trust? First of all, using data that come from institutes with the highest international and European principles and standards. Official statistics in the EU and in the world are based on principles. And in the EU they are also based on a legal framework.
As a good product needs a good marketing campaign, so do official statistics. They need communication to build trust. Presenting statistics and data in an understandable and exciting way. Trust comes also with small actions when communicating: data properly ordered; clear labels; consistency in colours; texts to help understand a graph and to explain the data. It is also important to tell the story of where the data come from.
And what about data literacy, the ability to read data, to get data, to understand the meaning, what to do with them? Certainly, ethics plays an important role. It put limits on data use: what cannot be said with data and which questions need to be raised to understand.
What if we started teaching data literacy at school? How could we encourage this type of career path? Perhaps by quoting the article of the New York Times which said that ‘statistician is among the top ten sexy professions’.
The message from the roundtable could perhaps best be summarised with a quote form Hans Rosling, a Swedish doctor and statistician, who used the power of statistics to promote sustainable global development and to fight misinformation and misconceptions.
“The world cannot be understood without numbers. And it cannot be understood with numbers alone.”
- Eurostat: European Statistics Code of practice
- Eurostat: European Statistical System (ESS) handbook for quality and metadata reports
- UN: Fundamental Principles of National Official Statistics
- Umbach, Gaby (2020): Of Numbers, Narratives and Challenges: Data as Evidence in 21st Century Policy-Making, Statistical Journal of the IAOS (SJIAOS), Special Feature on Governing by the Numbers – Statistical Governance, Walter Radermacher (lead) December 2020, Vol. 36, No. 4, pp. 1043-1055
- Latest EPRS publication: ‘Ten composite indices for policymaking