This week was World Statistics Day, celebrated at the UN and in individual countries around the world. While celebrating the successes of official statistics throughout its history of producing vital information for governments and citizens, this time much of the debate focused on its – more uncertain – future. The landscape is rapidly changing, swiftly shifting from a data-scarce to a data-rich world, from structured to unstructured data, from the quasi-monopoly of official statisticians on the production of information to fier competition, from pure statistics to multi-disciplinarity and the rise of so-called “data science”. There are obvious opportunities, but also formidable challenges, and it is always difficult for large organisations (such as statistical institutes) to adapt.
The President of the IAOS urged official statisticians to stick to the UN-backed Fundamental Principles of Official Statistics as a guide. She focused on the efficiency and ethics of engaging with users and the private sector, combined with the rigour of methods, to deliver “better data for better lives” (the slogan of the day).
Indeed statisticians can lead by example. Not necessarily in terms of data collection and analysis, where new techniques and solutions are proposed every day by wide numbers of actors; but certainly in terms of handling data for the public good. It is not just a matter of producing fancy visualizations, but of ensuring they are understood by large audiences and do not mislead anyone. It is a matter of ensuring openness and transparency, against a tendency for many private-sector actors to appropriate data to secure a competitive advantage. It is a matter of recognising and serving the data needs of social science research and policy evaluation. And last but not least, a matter of contributing to diffusing data literacy, to ensure no one is left out. Perhaps in this way, the data wealth of today may be distributed less unequally than material wealth.