The world is facing a crisis like no other. Policymakers are pursuing the combined aims of saving lives and minimizing the adverse economic, social and environmental impacts, and to do so they must take hard decisions and bold moves, quickly and transparently. Such decisions depend on solid data from trustworthy sources.
The world is clamouring for facts—and in the face of an unprecedented onslaught of fake news, misinformation and limited understanding of the numbers, official statistics issued by national statistical offices are crucial. Official statistics ensure that truth holds sway amid conjecture, misinterpretation, misuse of information or deliberate falsification.
But producers of official statistics are faced with unparalleled impediments from two opposing directions: massively increased demand for statistics to manage the pandemic and its impacts, combined with new and enormous obstacles to actually collecting data and producing statistics.
The demand for statistics about the crisis and its impacts is huge, and users—politicians, scientists, journalists and the public—want numbers quickly. The usual unique selling point of official statistics is accuracy and careful adherence to the strictest methodological standards, but right now users may be more interested in getting numbers rapidly. Producers of official statistics have a fine line to tread to meet this user demand without sacrificing what makes their products unique and valuable: the trustworthiness, rigour and political independence enshrined in the Fundamental Principles of Official Statistics. Not only are users demanding statistics more rapidly, and on more topics, but figures are being subjected to increased scrutiny, with politicians and journalists paying attention to sources, definitions and methods of presenting numbers in a way rarely seen before. This creates a new—and welcome—demand for statistical offices to explain the origins, caveats and interpretation of what they publish, known as the metadata, in a way that can be widely understood by people who are not statistical experts.
But against this newly-increased demand for numbers and what lies behind them is a challenge faced, in one way or another, by us all: the challenge to continue doing what we normally do in such radically changed circumstances. Most data are collected via surveys, either of households or of enterprises. How can a survey be conducted in a lockdown? If survey-takers cannot leave their homes and businesses are not operating, how can meaningful economic or social statistics be produced? Staff of statistical offices, just like everyone else in a great many UNECE countries, are working from home, trying to balance professional and personal demands. Sometimes lacking the secured access to data processing tools and computing equipment, the efficiency of teams is inevitably reduced. Obstacles are seen in every aspect of statistical production. Census operations often depend on legislation being passed, yet legislative processes may have been stalled; surveys may require hiring large temporary workforces, yet human resources procedures cannot operate as usual; and the very meaning of some survey questions used to produce labour statistics, such as place of work, hours worked, and length of commute is fundamentally changed when respondents are in lockdowns.
With these and many more difficulties facing statistical offices, there is a growing need for support and coordination on an international level. UNECE has created an online platform to signpost statistical producers across the region towards existing resources and new initiatives aimed at providing this support. Housed on the UNECE statswiki, producers and users of official statistics can share their own thoughts, experiences and materials to add to the growing wealth of resources for the common good. The platform highlights many UNECE guides and recommendations pertinent to one or more aspects of the crisis for statisticians, and includes links to the ever-growing array of resources produced by international partners. It also includes information about forthcoming activities such as the planned inclusion of crisis response information in the UNECE repository of information on current and upcoming censuses.
The challenges for official statistics arising from the COVID-19 crisis will continue to grow as time goes on. Even once statistical offices reopen and data collection practice return to normal, there will be a new demand for information on the impacts of the crisis. The world will expect quantitative answers about the efficiency of containment measures, so that lessons can be learned and applied to avert or reduce risk in the future. Questions will be asked about who has fallen into coronavirus-related poverty, how many people have become migrants or refugees, and how the economy has changed. There will be new kinds of economic transactions to record, new working practices to be counted in labour statistics, perhaps new data sources to be assessed and utilized for producing statistics. The need to communicate the essential value of what statistical offices do will be greater than ever, while the heightened public interest in this work could offer opportunities to gain support for future endeavours. The UNECE platform is a living resource that will evolve with these changes and that aims to help countries across the region work together to combat the challenges and harness the potential of acting collectively.
The platform is available at https://statswiki.unece.org/x/NYmSE