-United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) and UK Department for International Development (DFID). In this interview, Our Special Correspondent talks to Joseph Tinfissi Ilboudo, Chief Statistical Development, Data Innovation and Outreach Section of the African Centre for Statistics of UNECA.
Question: The workshop was about integrating non-traditional data sources in the production of official statistics. Why is this so crucial today?
Answer: Yes, it is so critical today because when you look at new dynamics of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) perspective and capacity of the traditional system to cover the needs, you will realise that there is an important percentage even more than half of the information that may have to come or should come from non-traditional sources. So integrating them, in fact, is a must because we have no choice; otherwise we would not be able to cover all the needed information for SDGs and also national development plans whereby some of the critical areas have to be enlightened by data we don’t have yet.
Q: There are questions of quality and reliability of these sources. How UNECA is looking at these issues?
A: Of course, quality do not come over night and the same to reliability, you have to have a process. At the beginning, to make sure that the system is going to deliver you have to ensure whatever the process, it has to follow a certain methodological requirements so even these data are not structurally to be used in a way that the official statistics want it, there is a possibility of improving the way we should take them in into account. They can be illustrative in some phenomena you have good proxy of what the reality should be. So it is important to work and to improve the way we want to put it into account. Of course, we are not just taking data for data but we are looking at how these data are able to illustrate issues of priorities for the nation or any other objectives.
Q: In Tanzania and I think, in other African countries, administrative data constitutes a big part of non-traditional data sources but the challenge is in its quality. Through your experience, how is the situation in other African countries?
A: Of course, they are facing the same challenges as Tanzania and most of the time we are asking national statistical system that is led by national statistics office to put emphasise on helping line ministries to improve administrative records because by doing they will be able to derive some consistence information that can be of good use. We are creating that awareness and we even have a documentation of the use of administrative records for production of official statistics explaining how those records can be improved at the national level and how they can make progress. But most of the time you will find they have some competing challenges like definitions and that is the role of national statistics office to guide them to do it in a better way so that it can serve the purpose of being a good sources to be used.
Q: What is the role of UNECA in this process?
A: The role of UNECA here is, let say, to leverage on our convening power to have the overall discussion and keeping these discussions on how national statistics systems in the continent can embrace these new ways and we will never cease to use any opportunity to carry on. I would say, our role at UNECA is to create awareness of what institutions should be doing.
Q: During the workshop you mentioned that UNECA has already prepared Framework of using non-traditional data sources in the production of official statistics. Can you elaborate a bit on this?
A: What we are saying is more of our perspective of bringing about experience other countries has in this area to others who want to learn from them. For example, Uganda is using satellite imagery to gather more frequent data about poverty at households. We want to make countries to be aware of what other are doing and the challenges they face. You know sharing of experience is very important for other to embrace this and start questioning on how they can improve in embracing non-traditional data which were unable to do. To be precise, our role is a kind of liaison one getting information to be known and getting experience to be shared.
Q: Now how ready are African countries to embrace this new idea of integrating non-traditional data sources into production of official statistics?
A: I think the debate is everywhere but the need and urgency to look at what data revolution has called for improving production of data to cover all needs on the view of ‘leaving no one behind’. At the end of the day you realise that this in an effort that should be collective and we have noticed in many African countries this movement of let us get to new frontiers of using data from other alternative sources. It is common phenomena that we are facing here and it is a common challenge to all statisticians on how to improve things that we traditionally do in a new ways.
Q: How do you assess the awareness of African leadership in using statistics in decision making?
A: I think here we have witnessed a sort of increasing in awareness on statistics because most of the debates were focusing on how to prioritise SDGs and when they come to that discussion then leaders call statisticians to tell them how and give more information. That dialogue has created momentum on how our planners and our statisticians are increasingly promoting the discussions. We have observed that they are more aware of the importance this phenomena (statistics) be in national planning perspective or towards continental goals, there is awareness certainly there. I must say that what we are supposed to do now is to keep these discussions going on and the feeding of system to be more plausible.
Q: Of late, there is what some refer it as ‘collision’ between technology and laws governing statistics. How does UNECA perceive this view?
A: Yes, sometime there seems to be such contradiction but personally I don’t think so. I would say we should rather use the technology to help on how we can apply or how we can implement the law. To my opinion there is no such collision. Technology should be used in implementation or in the disposition of the law in the best way. Why I am saying so? Because most of the time, statisticians would think that it should be applied in classical way but technology is here now to tell you that you can improve from classical way of doing things. For example, today due to technological advancement, obtaining information may no longer require you going with a bunch of paper questionnaires interrogating someone, it can be done in alternative way by using electronic devices. Therefore, technology must be seen by statisticians as an enabler of better application of the law and the law is here to show you how best data collection can be done.
Q: Tanzania is going to report implementation of SDGs this year. How do you see Africa responding to SDGs?
A: We are proud on that. More and more countries in the continent are voluntarily engaging in reporting on SDGs to show to the world how they are progressing in implementing SDGs. If I am not mistaken, about sixteen countries are about to go to present their national voluntary reporting. Some have done more than once. This means the interest is there and Africa owns the process of reporting SDGs which is something to be encouraged. And, I am convinced this positive trend is a result of strong dialogues which have been conducted between our planners and our statisticians.