Cooperation in Arabian Gulf is key to making best use of data

The Abu Dhabi Statistics Conference looks at the lack of collaboration between agencies and governments.

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ABU DHABI // Statistics centres can expand their reach and efficiency if they unlock data gathered by other government entities, a conference heard yesterday.

But using that data requires close cooperation – a challenge in the Arabian Gulf and elsewhere, speakers said at the Abu Dhabi Statistics Conference.

“This culture of lack of alignment or coordination is important,” said Saber Al Harbi, director-general of economic statistics at Oman’s National Centre for Statistics and Information. During a recent meeting with other Omani data providers, some were reluctant to collaborate, Mr Al Harbi said.

“We were surprised because some entities said, ‘We don’t want the national centre to interfere in our work’.”

The two-day conference, organised by the Statistics Centre Abu Dhabi, focused on improving the quality of “administrative data” – information from entities such as labour ministries, welfare agencies and tax collectors for the purpose of administration, not research.

Ideally, a government statistics centre should have access to good data from these sources. Using such data can reduce reliance on large surveys, which are expensive and unwieldy, speakers said.

“We all recognise that sample surveys have some significant challenges,” said Dr Mohammed Al Rifai, the statistic centre’s manager of methodology and sampling.

The Netherlands, for example, has not conducted a traditional census since 1971, said Eric Nordholt, project leader at Statistics Netherlands. Government decision-makers wanted census data, but gathering it was costly and some people were unwilling to participate.

“We were forced to find an alternative,” Mr Nordholt said.

The Dutch census now combines labour force, housing and other surveys with administrative data such as figures on education, jobs and unemployment.

Requiring data providers to share information with statistics centres is not enough, speakers said.

In Abu Dhabi, the statistic’s centre has a legal mandate to coordinate the emirate’s statistical system, which includes about 70 government and non-government entities. The centre has signed 37 agreements to facilitate data-sharing.

But administrative data brings new challenges, Dr Al Rifai said.

“Administrative databases are not usually constructed for the purpose of official statistics,” he said, and a “lack of priority given to statistical needs” can lead to delays in transferring the data.

To get round those hurdles, the centre created a working group with data-providers to “set down the procedures and resolve disagreements”, Dr Al Rifai said. The statistics centre also provided technical advice and statistical training to staff at other entities.