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Modernizing data collection enhances resilience of statistical offices in times of crisis

UNECE statistical modernization programme supports countries’ response to data collection challenges

A virtual UNECE workshop concludes today in which experts on surveys, censuses and alternative data collection methods have revealed their brand-new learning about the best ways to maintain core data collection, and collect newly-demanded data, in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The need for statistics isn’t put on hold during a national or international crisis—in fact demand increases, as decision-makers rely on numbers to guide their next moves. National statistical offices (NSOs) are experienced in maintaining business continuity in the face of adversity, be it hurricanes, earthquakes, civil unrest or political upheaval. But never before have so many NSOs had to deal with a situation that has placed such enormous and wide-ranging restrictions on their ability to collect data. The businesses that provide economic and labour force data have been closed; the staff that conduct surveys and analyze data have been locked-down in their homes, with new staff hired and trained online; survey-takers and respondents have had to observe new and changing health protection rules such as social distancing and wearing personal protective equipment; and supply chains have been disrupted for the basic items needed to gather data, such as paper for printed questionnaires or tablets for electronic data gathering.

Maintaining essential data collection

From the very beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, the official statistics community has recognized how crucial it is to maintain data collection. Users of official statistics, from banks to businesses and from politicians to school pupils, still expect to be able to look up basic figures such as GDP, population, migration, unemployment. They expect these figures to be reliable and comparable with those they used before the pandemic. And they expect them to reflect the new realities of the current situation, such as current unemployment and earnings figures.

Presenters in this week’s UNECE workshop outlined the lengths they have gone to to keep gathering data. In Mexico, the pandemic struck as the country’s census was underway. New social distancing rules meant some census enumerators had to call out questions to respondents through their windows. In the Netherlands, an online portal was developed and tested at speed to gather data from businesses without traditional surveys. Ireland, Italy and Poland have employed a variety of techniques to communicate with respondents to secure their vital responses to surveys, from sending postcards and handwritten notes to increased use of telephone calls. Discussions revealed that the more advanced an NSO was before the pandemic in their move towards modern modes of data collection (electronic devices, Internet responses, video interviewing and so on), the easier it was for them to make the changes required by the Covid restrictions.

Collecting new data to measure new phenomena

The world has changed in countless ways since the onset of the pandemic. Responding to these changes requires information about things that previously were not measured—or at least not by national statistical offices. NSOs have found themselves at the centre of nationwide efforts to collect, coordinate and disseminate statistics on the virus itself—cases, tests, hospital admissions, mortality rates. And new survey questions or whole new surveys have sprung up across UNECE countries to gather data about the impacts of working from home and school closures on mental health, gender-based violence and unpaid care work; the economic fallout of business closures and furloughs; and the envionmental impacts of reduced mobility and industrial activity.

Examples showcased in this week’s event included new questions on covid impacts in Finland’s Consumer Confidence Survey; and new modules in a plethora of surveys in Poland on science, technology, culture, tourism and civil society. In the United Kingdom, a Business Impact of Coronavirus Survey was developed and conducted every two weeks starting in early March.  

Long-term impacts on data collection

The UNECE programme on modernizing official statistics has for close to a decade supported countries in making a transition to using new modes of data collection, new data sources and new methods for integrating data from multiple sources. For many NSOs the pandemic has accelerated this transition, forcing the hands of cautious offices where the alternative may have been to stop collecting data altogether. The pace of change has been rapid, with one participant stating “we have had a greater impact in six months than in our whole careers so far”. While the panoply of new tools, techniques and statistical products may in time settle as the pandemic runs its course, the steps taken across the UNECE region in the direction of statistical modernization are undoubtedly permanent.

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UNECE’s work on statistical modernization, including modernizing data collection, is coordinated by the High-Level Group for the Modernization of Official Statistics (HLG-MOS)