Why scarcity of data should worry us | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, November 29, 2017 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:47 PM, November 29, 2017

Why scarcity of data should worry us

A week or so ago, a colleague and I needed to fact-check a claim about gun deaths across the United States. We simply googled and found a number of sources. The most cited of these was the US government's own data. The National Center for Health Statistics, like many other federal agencies, preserves an enormous amount of important data on its website.

Data—whether it be about the economy, healthcare, tax or any other important issue—shapes public debate in the western part of the world. On the other hand, here in our part of the world, that same day, another colleague of mine was scratching his head trying to find data on suicide mortality in Bangladesh—statistics one would expect to be easily available. There were several sources, with WHO being the most notable one. However, the most recent credible nationwide data he found relating to suicide had been compiled in 2012—and this too was bereft of much-needed details.

“In Bangladesh, one could commit suicide simply because their exam results turn out to be worse than expected,” my colleague explained. “A girl might take her life because of harassment she faces daily while going to school. Both are cases of suicides, but differ significantly in terms of the issue.”

To formulate major policies, the government largely relies on data provided by its premier statistical agency, Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS). However, not only independent experts but also the government itself has repeatedly questioned the credibility of BBS data, because at times it does not make any sense.

In a recent op-ed piece titled “BBS under fire, again” published in this newspaper, Syed Mansur Hashim cited some recent blunders BBS made, earning the wrath of ministries that relied on its data and regretted it afterwards. Some incidents even imply that data might have been manipulated to show a rosy picture. When it comes to predicting yearly economic growth, for example, BBS data portrays a higher growth rate than that suggested by World Bank and IMF data. This year, economists and experts publicly questioned the estimated national economic growth—well above seven percent—calculated by BBS. If track records are to be taken into account, the nation's renowned economists certify that World Bank and IMF data are much more reliable.

Then there was the incident when a BBS survey result caused widespread disbelief as the data showed that the Hindu population in Bangladesh had dramatically increased going against the fact that there have been decades of consecutive decline—raising questions about the sampling process involved.

Keeping aside government data, the data provided by many NGOs may have their own flaws. If someone wants to research the incidence of rape and sexual assault in this country, for example, NGOs are the only sources for the relevant data. Unfortunately, NGOs mainly document rape incidents based on secondary data, that is, newspaper reports.

The police also keep track of crimes reported to police stations across the country. In their website, one can find the number of cases filed under “Women and Child Repression” every month. But this data too is problematic and does not necessarily reflect the reality on the ground because, firstly, not all rape victims report the case due to the social stigma attached to it, and, secondly, “Women and Child Repression” cases are at times filed to exploit its “non-bailable” provision. Moreover, the Women and Child Repression Prevention Act covers a range of crimes including rape. Therefore, for a researcher, the likelihood of finding specific data, say on the incidence of rape, is low while that of the data available being faulty is very high. Unfortunately, this is the scenario when it comes to documenting problems that are rampant in our society.

For journalists, the problem is even more daunting. Data-based journalism has been gaining momentum for years. Yet, the unavailability of data is a prime reason why data journalism has not flourished in our country. The scarcity of data also explains why we do not see more infographics along with news reports in our newspapers.

Recently, there's been some noise in the capital's economic arena about the need for evidence-based policymaking. Indeed, important policy decisions need to be made based on solid evidence, good data and concrete analysis. However, few have raised the question as to why there are not more organisations to collect and analyse data. True, our policymakers make blunt decisions based on presumptions instead of precise evidence. But it is also problematic that we have very few organisations that do the hard part—the research required.

That research is one of the most underfunded areas of our universities is a good indicator of our inability to comprehend the importance of data. The Financial Express recently reported that BBS, the nation's pristine statistical agency tasked with producing data we need, itself suffers from a dearth of statisticians. As ridiculous as this sounds, it is also an indictment of our utter neglect towards data and hard evidence.

Nazmul Ahasan is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.

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