National statistical offices have experienced significant changes in recent years, urging them to re-think the way they collect, manage and disseminate data. Information technology (IT) has played a critical role in helping to save time, improve accuracy, and enhance access to their products. Yet, the move from a paper-based to a fully digital system requires thorough preparation. The Ghana Statistical Service embarked on a journey to map its data flows in an effort to accelerate digitalisation.
With an estimated 64.2 zettabytes of data created, captured, copied and consumed globally in 2020, the data deluge continues to grow, and so does the importance of data portals. In today’s digital age, statistical organisations, for example, national statistical offices (NSOs), increasingly turn to data portals to unify and structure complex information from different sources in a single platform. User-friendly search functions and features to share and even visualise the data further support one of the main purposes of data portals. As gateways providing access to statistical data, they form a unique bridge between data producers and users, ranging from policy advisors and researchers to the media and others.
Yet, this vital institution-citizen connection is cut in many places across the globe as almost one-third of NSOs in countries eligible for support from the International Development Association (IDA) have no data portal, a recent study by Open Data Watch and the Partnership in Statistics for Development in the 21st Century (PARIS21) shows.
Ghana: getting people, processes and products in the picture
In Ghana, the state of data dissemination differs significantly. The Ghana Statistical Service (GSS) disseminates data through three main channels: the organisational website, print publications and two data portals.
Although built on such strong foundations, the GSS recognised the need to further develop their dissemination means in order to optimise public outreach, engagement and data use. “We are committed to improving data availability, access and sharing. Currently, we are handling a high number of requests from our users, which is why we decided to systematically analyse our current practices and the way we manage people, processes and products,” says Samuel Kobina Annim, Government Statistician of GSS.
In concrete numbers, the GSS handles around 300 requests for data per year. While most of the data is available online, it is often difficult to find and may be unavailable in certain formats. Moreover, in the case of the GSS, having two data portals leads to duplication of content and an increased reporting and management burden.
Another issue is that data in Ghana, as in many countries, is often spread across a range of agencies. For example, two-thirds of the indicators in the GSS 2015 Statistical Yearbook were sourced from other agencies, such as the Ministry of Education and Fisheries Commission.
This process requires a well-designed, standardised data flow and coordination. The GSS holds a leading role in the national statistical system and a mandate to set standards for data generation across ministries, departments, and agencies. These roles and responsibilities were re-enforced in the Statistical Service Act, passed in 2019.
Keeping up with digitalisation: strengths and bottlenecks
That same year, a three-person delegation with technical experts from the Partnership in Statistics for Development in the 21st Century (PARIS21) and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) travelled to Accra, Ghana. As one of the pilot countries next to Tunisia, Thailand and Cambodia, it supported the delegation’s research efforts, which later resulted in the publication of the Data Flow Analysis Framework (DFAF).
Raising questions about the performance of the data portals, the overall publication process, the directorates and teams either directly or indirectly involved in the data flow, and more helped pinpoint the NSO’s strengths and bottlenecks. “Inspecting the IT infrastructure in place was just as important as talking to staff to get a sense of the departments’ organisation, responsibilities and capacities,” recalls Jonathan Challener, Partnerships and Community Manager for the Statistical Information System Collaboration Community (SIS-CC), a leading open source community for official statistics housed within the OECD.
An IT infrastructure, including stable internet access, functioning computers and well-maintained servers for file storage and sharing, is too often taken for granted, but surely not a given on the African country. The GSS, however, has strong IT foundations and skills, which are indispensable to accelerate digitalisation in their processes.
On the other side, limitations were observed regarding available formats of published reports and data, with PDF files dominating the website. Also, the number of indicators published on the data portals was found to be generally low – a common obstacle in many NSOs. Why is that?
“Data portals often host indicators from paper-based publications, which are generally released first. Then, someone needs to read and manually enter the data into the portals. This means that data may be published several months later in the data portals, hence, keeping low the numbers of indicators that are digitised, interconnected across data sets and published online. This, in turn, may lead to many user requests for data,’’ explains Rajiv Ranjan, Innovation Team Lead at PARIS21.
Additional inherent limitations of paper-based publications are the lower volumes of data they can contain as well as mistakes and data quality issues resulting from manual entry into the portals.
An IT infrastructure, including stable internet access, functioning computers and well-maintained servers for file storage and sharing, is too often taken for granted, but surely not a given on the African country.
Making full use of the data flow analysis
The data flow analysis conducted together with the GSS brought to light new insights followed by actions. With overlaps identified in the directorates’ names and responsibilities, the GSS decided on an overhaul. “As an NSO working with the DFAF, you can only ensure success if you are ready to re-arrange the overall organisational structure. The analysis enables you to compare your organigram to international practices and to spot constraints and conflicts that could hamper your work,” says Samuel Kobina Annim.
The DFAF also provides guidance in moving from paper-based to digital data dissemination. It does so by studying the process of how data is brought into data portals. One important aspect is to capture where indicators are available in digital format for the first time.
Ghana has taken a critical step forward in this regard by using tablets as much as possible in their latest 2020/2021 population and housing census. This innovation brings Ghana closer to a fully digital census while moving away from time-consuming manual data entry. With data collection made digital from the very start, the workload may be reduced and data available in a more timely manner.
Looking ahead, challenges on the path toward enhancing data dissemination can be most effectively addressed when mapping them first. Ghana’s experiences, along with those of the other pilot countries, have been fundamental in designing the DFAF as a framework that helps to get a sound understanding of the institutional structures, processes, tools and needs evolved around data production and dissemination.
What are data portals?
Data portals, in the basic sense, are online platforms to efficiently store, organise, find and share data in one place. Without a data portal, you would find yourself asking around to find out the whereabouts of certain data assets, ranging from simple web traffic analytics to datasets of national or global interest like COVID-19 infection cases, greenhouse gas emissions or crime rates. Data that cannot be located might even be considered lost or inexistent, triggering the costly and cumbersome process of re-collecting the data.
How to map data flows?
The publication, Data Flow Analysis Framework - Guidelines for Analysing Data Flows in National Statistical Offices, co-produced by PARIS21 and the OECD, enables national statistical offices to map the state of their data flows using a data-centric view and to identify recommendations for establishing a workflow-based integrated dissemination solution for indicators. The guidelines can help statistical organisations assess their needs in terms of data management and dissemination ahead of choosing a customised solution, such as .Stat Suite, a standard-based, open source platform developed by the SIS-CC.