Getting the Data Right: Geoff Bascand Comments on the Value of Statistical Information to New Zealand and to Global Development and the Work of Statistics New Zealand

Article excerpt

Official statistics have two broad roles. The first is to contribute to policy development and operation and the second is to facilitate public debate and enable accountability. Statistics are used to establish specific policy settings. They capture the impact of specific policies on outcomes. New Zealand has an effective statistical system m and internationally it punches above its weight. It participates in numerous international statistical organisations and has been a leader in developing a broader set of dials on countries' well-being that also include environmental and social dimensions. The importance of such work was highlighted on World Statistics Day, 20 October 2010.

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The United Nations mandated World Statistics Day, 20 October 2010 (20-10-2010), in recognition of the critical importance of official statistics to community, national and global development. In keeping with that intent, I want to convey the international and historical significance of statistics. I will provide some examples that illustrate the influence of statistics, and the work of Statistics New Zealand in helping New Zealand to grow and prosper. I will then discuss the global statistics system. I will quickly go over some aspects of the New Zealand statistical system, before finishing off with challenges and opportunities ahead.

The collection of data is nearly as ancient as recorded civilisation itself. Early censuses were typically conducted in response to the desire by rulers for more efficient tax gathering or to better assess the state's readiness for war. Only in the last few hundred years has there been significant development of sophisticated analytical methods for interpreting data -and the burst of creative advancement in presentation and dissemination is a modern phenomenon.

The origins of estimating national income can be traced to the 1660s, propelled by a desire to illustrate options around more efficient and equitable forms of taxation. By the early 1800s there was an acute awareness among social reformers of the potential benefits of employing statistical analysis to advance programmes for change. The reformers' research was wide, covering mortality rates, incidence of different diseases, living standards, demographics, relative national economic prowess and much more. Status quo defenders also used data, driven by a countervailing desire to map progress and allay any emerging social unrest or undue demands for radical social reform.

Many early reformers, anxious for a new scientific tool to better tell the stories they wanted to highlight, thought that they were on the cusp of unlocking an all-encompassing predictive science of society. Over-exuberance, in time, bowed before a sober refocusing of statistics as a method of analysis in the service of humanity.

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We now understand statistics to be an applied mathematics-based empirical discipline involving the systematic collection, analysis, interpretation, presentation, and distribution of relevant data. We also recognise official statistics for their specific role in providing impartial, trustworthy, high-quality and relevant knowledge.

Statistics' power

The statistical fruit of this discipline is the most powerful type of information around. Statistics help to shape people's lives, communities, our country, and our world. They inform attitudes, and decision-making. Statistics, then, measure the impacts of the actions taken. They tell us how we are doing as individuals, as families, communities and countries. The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates summed it up nicely--statistics 'declare the past, diagnose the present, foretell the future'.

I want to refer briefly to two complementary but slightly different roles of official statistics. The first broad role is the use of statistics in policy development and operation. In many ways this is our bread and butter--providing data that offers evidence to policy-makers as they design policy and evaluate its effects on well-being. …