Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Thoughts on data, progress and a crisis

I, like most of you, have been watching the footage from Japan. While the New Zealand earthquake fades from memory I suddenly remember those horrific floods in Pakistan that are all but a distant memory to the western media. Then what about Ivory Coast and Libya as well? Sometimes I really wonder how the world can possibly progress if disaster after disaster keeps occurring. Ok, before you stop reading because I am being really depressing, there is a point to this. Data.

Yesterday, I attended an OECD Development Centre seminar on “Social Cohesion, Inequality and Economic Crises” with Sir Anthony Atkinson of Nuffield College, Oxford. He was talking about two crises that have come upon us in recent years: the banking crises and the consumption crises. He and Salvatore Morelli are working on a piece of research on how/whether different kinds of crises affect inequality in societies or vice versa. The camp which argues that growing inequality increases the risk of crises includes Chiefs Economist Stiglitz and Rajan. Whereas Krugman (2009) argues that rising inequality is does not increase the risk of a crisis.

What was most interesting to me was the issue of “the data challenge”. In order to actually argue this out, there has to be reliable data of which there are not. In order to analyse this Atkinson notes that you need a long run of years as crises (the kind he was talking about) are rare events, up to date distributional data which is lacking, the ability to download annual series on a number of countries (currently very difficult technically to do), consistent data (currently data on inequality have to be patched together from a variety of sources or just left out if missing) just to name a few. Also, in the choice of countries for study, any country that had had a major war was just left out. Would it not be interesting to look at a conflict country to see whether inequality was an issue? Data on violence in Liberia for example can be found here on the UNFPA’s website on shelter, jobs, loss of life and violence against women. But, Liberia and many other post conflict countries are left out of many studies because there was a war there. Unless, it is a particular study on “post conflict society”, you will not see very much from this crowd. It is really difficult to get data for sure. UNFPA talks about the challenges of collecting data on the ground. I have lived in Liberia and been to Lofa country on several occasions. I can tell you that they are not kidding.

So, if the data is so hard to collect and more subjective measures or non official data are not really trusted as much as those of national accounts systems (though that is also under fire as of recently see the Stiglitz report and the Global Project on Measuring the Progress of Societies), what is to be done about it? I am really thinking in terms of crisis data here. With information communication technologies today, there should be a way to be able to continue to collect data on a society uninterrupted. Sure, Ushahidi and others are working on this but this kind of data hasn’t made it to the peer review journal set (wikileaks?). I think we are in another crisis…a data one. Data on populations in wars and natural disasters is important and these countries should not be left out because of an IT or management problem while in crisis. Fast Company has a good article on this here which asks “so is that what Pakistan needs? An external service specializing in the collection and coordination of data, rather than relying on its own internal government resources?” Whatever the case, there has to be regular ease of communication between data collected on the ground, have it recorded “on the record”, disseminated and used in studies like Atkinson and Morrelli’s and beyond. Perhaps then we will really be able to say with some certainty where we are in terms of social cohesion or inequality or any other dimension of progress by applying better evidence for conflict countries, countries in a crisis like Japan and Pakistan and all others.

These are just some of my thoughts while watching Japan gets through this. I would be interested to hear yours.

Angela Hariche

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