By Rajiv Ranjan, PARIS21 and Eric Swanson, Open Data Watch
Who uses data portals and official statistics? Many people, inside and outside of government. At a recent webinar sponsored by PARIS21 and Open Data Watch, journalists and fact checkers from Africa, Latin America, and the United Kingdom described how they use official statistics to inform their readers and correct misinformation. Kate Wilkerson of FullFact said fact checkers and journalists are both “very needy and very demanding users” of data. And because they are “the first responders in an information crisis” and “an early warning system about misinformation,” they need ready access to reliable data. But like most people, they are not statisticians, so they need data that are easy to find and carefully documented. They, in turn, play a vital role taking complex data and explaining them to their readers.
Increasingly, data portals serve as the primary gateway for data access by all users, facilitating evidence-based decision-making, monitoring and, as we have seen, fact checking, and reporting. Of great importance are data portals managed by national statistical offices (NSOs) that perform a range of critical functions: organising data, providing metadata, and offering options for downloading and visualisation. However, calling a website, a data portal does not make it so. A well-designed portals must be accompanied by suitable upstream data management practices to improve data availability, access, and use.
Assessing data portals
In April 2016, PARIS21’s discussion paper on NSO-managed data portals concluded that while development partners have, with good intentions, made portals available to many countries, the outcomes have been mixed. Particularly in the most aid-dependent countries, the frequent establishment of multiple, parallel platforms has resulted in (i) a duplication of workload for already resource-constrained NSOs that must maintain several portals and update information manually; (ii) confusion for users who consult various portals with often conflicting results; and (iii) high costs for demonstrably low usage.
The discussion paper sparked an international consultation on the state of data portals used by NSOs. In January 2018, United Nations Statistics Division (UNSD) held the Conference on National Platforms for Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Reporting and launched the Principles of SDG Indicator Reporting and Dissemination Platforms and Guidelines for their Application in March 2019.
In November 2021, after almost six years of the publication of PARIS21’s discussion paper, PARIS21 and Open Data Watch evaluated the data portals of 74 IDA-eligible countries using criteria drawn from UNSD’s principles and guidelines. The results were published by PARIS21 and Open Data Watch as Data Dissemination in the Digital Age.
We found almost a third of the IDA-eligible countries did not have a data portal, and in countries where data portals are present, adherence to the principles and guidelines is uneven. Although portals perform better on some of the foundational requirements, like data communication and data disaggregation, many of the more advanced guidelines are far from being implemented.
The summary sheet below presents the key results for each of the twelve guidelines. The colour-coded implementation rating has four levels: Red — poorly implemented (less than 30 percent of the sample meets the criteria); Yellow — moderately implemented (between 30 –70 percent of the sample meets the criteria); Green — well implemented (more than 70 percent of the sample meets the criteria). Three guidelines (collaboration, user-centred design, and scalability) shown in Grey could not be fully evaluated based on available evidence.
Recommendations for an integrated approach
The principles and guidelines are an important foundational step toward improving data dissemination. The research by PARIS21 and Open Data Watch is a first step towards operationalising the UNSD’s principles and guidelines. It makes five actionable recommendations for countries to adhere to the guidelines and improve their portals. These recommendations, summarized in the graphic below, also suggest how the international community can better monitor progress toward implementing them. Still, the principles and guidelines need to be updated to encompass other data portal features that affect data use and provide clearer instructions on implementing the guidelines.
It is worth continuing the conversation so that the global community can reflect on their use, applicability, and potential improvements. Just as user feedback cycles are essential for developing and managing data portals, they are also crucial for further development and implementation of the principles and guidelines.
The adoption of data portals illustrates another important lesson. While digital technologies have enormous potential to improve data management and dissemination, just applying digital tools is not enough if the underlying processes remain inefficient and uncoordinated. NSOs have much to gain from digitalisation, but to bring about real change in the functioning of statistical offices, we must commit to greater harmonisation of international partners, integration of country statistical processes, the assumption of country responsibility to search for cost-effective solutions, and increased attention to the needs of data users.
The digital transformation of a statistical system requires a paradigm shift that is generated, guided, and sustained over time from within the country. It should not be seen as simply digitising documents or digitalising isolated processes. Instead, it should be part of an integrated, forward-looking strategy that supports the core business of the NSO and defines and implements new roles and business models. It is in such an environment that data portals can realise their full potential.