The puzzle of hiding data | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, July 25, 2017 / LAST MODIFIED: 11:27 AM, July 25, 2017

The puzzle of hiding data

On a recent visit to Bangladesh, noted economist Nurul Islam voiced his concerns about the quality of the national statistics (data) of Bangladesh. Like the quality of some basic food items in Bangladesh, our data quality, too, is questionable. I would like to add another dimension to this subject: lack of access to public data, which shows the shortsightedness of our data providers, who are also depriving Bangladesh of the benefits of rigorous scientific research.

Let me give an example to illustrate the point. Suppose you want to conduct scientific research on the inflation dynamics in Bangladesh. Since the inflation data is published by the Bureau of Bangladesh Statistics (BBS), you visit its website and immediately discover that you can only get 3-4 years of data. Often this data is not provided in a spreadsheet, so you will have to collect it on your own and create your own spreadsheet. Any researcher would know that one cannot do much with only 3-4 years of data, even though inflation data is available at a monthly frequency.

Of course, you can visit the BBS office to manually collect data from past years from various published reports, assuming that you would find the reports in a single place sorted in ascending yearly order. I am also assuming that you will not have to visit the BBS office multiple times to get your desired data, amid the crazy traffic of Dhaka.

If the prospect of a physical journey seems daunting to you, I have an easy solution for you! You can collect the inflation data from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) database, which provides monthly consumer price index and inflation data for Bangladesh from 1993 to the present. Although the IMF data is usually available through a subscription, it is freely available for selected developing countries including Bangladesh. But the irony is, the IMF takes the data from BBS, who has the sole proprietorship of this data. Why can't the BBS make the data available on its website then? This is certainly not confidential; otherwise we would not be able to get them on the IMF website anyway.

This reveals a peculiar mentality of our national data providers. Why can't they share the data with Bangladeshis who have a rightful claim on it, when they can share the same with institutions such as the IMF? The problem is not limited to the BBS only. One faces a similar challenge in getting monetary data, for example, from the Bangladesh Bank (BB). Although in many ways, the accessibility and availability of macroeconomic data from Bangladesh Bank are relatively better than the BBS, it too falls short of expectations. The bottom-line is: the websites of public institutions in Bangladesh do not have long-term data archiving options to help researchers looking for macroeconomic statistics.

But this data is often available on the websites of the IMF or the World Bank. The World Bank deserves praise for making its flagship database, the World Development Indicator, open to everyone. Our national data providers (BBS, BB) routinely supply macroeconomic data to these donor agencies but when it comes to sharing the same data with the public, they seem to have a problem. This, in my view, exposes the colonial mentality of the leadership of our public institutions.

Let's look at the benefits of making data open to the public. Suppose a doctoral student at a US university is writing her dissertation on an economic issue of Bangladesh, and if the required data is available on a BBS website, she can conveniently access it. The net result is that Bangladesh can benefit from new scientific research financed by the US taxpayers' money. Now multiply this gain by any number you like, because uncountable researchers from all corners of the world can now exploit this newly available data for their research purpose. All these benefits come at a low cost, thanks to the digital revolution.

Let me share a personal anecdote here. When I was working as a research economist at Qatar Central Bank, on many occasions, I asked my Arab audience to think why the Bank of Israel makes all their data available online for free, when information is highly guarded in Israel. Of course, the management of the bank is aware of the enormous benefits of open data, while its Arab counterparts still treat national data as a state secret. Although, one may be surprised to know that among the twenty-plus Arab countries, the Saudi Arabian Monetary Authority, the central bank of Saudi Arabia, offers an impressive annual database on the Saudi Arabian economy. Even more surprisingly, the flashy United Arab Emirates scores poorly in this regard. 

Various government agencies in Bangladesh collect and maintain a lot of data. But these offices do not see the benefits in making it open to the world. In this connection, I think the data providers should be more sympathetic to the students who often face a difficult situation in obtaining the information they need. The citizens are the real owners of the national data, so more attention should be paid to improve data accessibility. Bangladesh cannot always afford to hire world-class researchers, but it can at least act wisely to make the data open to the public and enjoy the benefits of free scholarly research. All it needs is a change of mindset.


Syed Basher is an associate professor of economics at East West University. His work can be viewed at www.syedbasher.org.


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