28–29 October 2019, OECD Boulogne Conference Centre
Data, truth and trust in the digital age
Trust matters for national statistical systems because it affects the adoption of official statistics by government, the private sector, academia and citizens. Official statistics have supported credible public discourses for decades and been perceived as trustworthy truth-holders in the past. So what is different today?
90 percent of the world’s data has been generated in only the last two years. From satellite imagery to smart appliances, the way that we interact with the world, and with one another, is becoming increasingly governed by data. Aided by our smartphones we, ourselves, have become human data factories, pumping out torrents of information—from heart rates to browsing habits—twenty-four hours a day.
Whereas once, our sources for ‘facts’ about the world were limited largely to official statistics or the work of a small group of academics, today, with only a few clicks of a button we can analyse millions of data points or fact-check a friend’s casual assertion. Moreover, from civil society organisations to armchair evangelists, anyone is capable of accessing a dataset and using it to advance a point of view.
What does this mean for official statistics?
For one, official statistics are now only one of many competing sources of information, and they may not always win against more relatable, real-time data sources. Moreover, we may be less influencd by those datasets we perceive to be the “truest” than those which support our biases. For another, populist attacks on “experts” and “elites” are undermining trust in public institutions, and those attacks are increasingly backed by competing data and pseudo-science. These trends have ushered in a new post-truth political climate characterised by amplified disinformation and biases.
How can we renew and sustain public confidence in official statistics?
Many national statistical offices are starting to adapt to this new context. Embracing openness, implementing new forms of communication, collaborating with diverse stakeholders from the private sector, the media and academia, are all helping to seat national statistics in the real world. Yet for many others, especially among low-income countries with fledgling statistical systems, the path to increasing relevance and authority may not be obvious.
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