Never underestimate the power of data

Never underestimate the power of data

The period between 1958 and 1961 is one that is marked by what is known as the most devastating famine of modern age, that of the Great Chinese Famine, which resulted in tens of millions of unnecessary deaths.

Losing as many as 40 million people to a catastrophic famine seems inconceivable today, yet that is precisely what happened. Though droughts and other environmental factors played a big part in bringing the famine about, the catastrophe was magnified by the absence of accurate and reliable data. The case of the Great Chinese Famine provides a shocking yet clear example of why all government policies must be data-driven and evidence-based.

When Mao Zedong announced that communist China would undertake the Great Leap Forward, he wanted to rapidly turn China into a superpower and rival the world’s most advanced economies of the time. The government in Beijing put pressure on villages and provincial administrators to meet exceedingly unrealistic targets with little consideration to environmental or social factors, leading local officials to fabricate reports of dramatic increases in agricultural yields. The reality, however, was drastically different to what the reports conveyed. The Chinese government acted on the basis of the annual grain production being 50 percent more than it actually was and sold millions of tons of produce to foreign countries in exchange for weapons and heavy machinery, with the assumption that enough was left to feed the Chinese population. The result was the worst famine in history.

Nearly six decades later, many governments still underestimate the importance of basing policies on accurate, reliable data, and investing in proper data collection and analysis. In the absence of reliable data, policymaking frequently relies on intuition, past experience or expertise, all of which have serious drawbacks.

Time and again, research has proven how biases can lead to poor policy judgments. In July 2000, British prime minister Tony Blair famously said, “A thug might think twice about kicking your gate, throwing traffic cones around your street, hurling abuse into the night sky, if he thought he might get picked up by the police, taken to a cash point and asked to pay an on-the-spot fine of, for example, £100.” After his statement, the Penalty Notice for Disorder was brought into law by the Criminal Justice and Police Act. Blair assumed that the “thugs” had bank accounts, a valid debit card and as much as £100 available to be withdrawn. The reality however, is that at least one in five of those in question would not meet these requirements, either on account of them being poor or simply too intoxicated and disorganized. Blair’s assumption that other people lived the way he did was unfounded.

In this day and age, governments’ access to modern information technology gives policymakers an immediate advantage over the Chinese government in the late 1950s, when data had to be reported on paper to the officials in Beijing. Manually collecting and reporting information made it subject to manipulation along the way, leading decision-makers to seal deals based on an incomplete picture drawn from error-ridden data, which ultimately caused irreversible damage to millions of people.

In the absence of reliable data, policymaking frequently relies on intuition, past experience or expertise, all of which have serious drawbacks.

Maria Hanif Al-Qassim

Governments today can invest in more advanced collection methods. Today, technological advancements enable us to collect data about almost anything, from traffic flow to water quality, remotely through satellites and sensors. Electronic reporting and management systems allow us to transfer healthcare records and student test scores and check for errors seamlessly in a matter of seconds. Real-time data collection also plays a pivotal role in averting a crisis, allowing people to plan preventative measures.

While data gaps have long impeded effective policymaking, we cannot underestimate how failure to properly analyse readily available data has had the same effect on policy interventions. Not only can reliable data help us locate “invisible” issues and tackle them, but it can also continuously improve our response by directing us towards more targeted policy design and implementation. How many policies have gone wrong and failed to deliver because of baseless assumptions? How many could have been avoided by harnessing relevant and accurate data to analyse existing issues and underlying factors, then designing targeted and more effective policy interventions?

Reliable data can guide governments in the most important stages of policymaking, such as the setting of priorities and evaluation of impact. Data can play an important role in comparing issues by level of severity and urgency, enabling governments to more efficiently and equitably allocate resources. Furthermore, continuous data collection and analysis can gauge the success of any policy intervention, allowing governments to replicate success stories, terminate or amend less impactful ones, and share learnings with others in the field. Data harnessing and analysis provides the foundation for evidence-based interventions.

Increased investment in national statistical offices and other data-gathering institutions, and adopting a shift towards data-based policymaking, is a necessity for governments today, not only because it provides policymakers with clearer pictures of the reality they are dealing with, but it also improves their ability to forecast and manage risks, measure impact and compare results.

Without accessible, reliable and timely data, policymaking is no different to driving to a neighbouring city without a map on a foggy night. Whether in education, health care, the environment or security, data-driven policymaking will help governments best deploy precious resources, achieve bigger and more measurable impacts and better handle risks and challenges.

  • Maria Hanif Al-Qassim is an Emirati from Dubai who writes on development, gender and social issues. Twitter: @maria_hanif 
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