The importance of reliable data in times of crisis

/ Author: Masja de Ree
Patient with COVID-19 virus in the intensive care unit of the Catharina Hospital in Eindhoven
© Hollandse Hoogte / Rob Engelaar
The COVID-19 crisis has brought with it a great need for reliable data, and national statistical offices (NSOs) are playing an important role in this regard. Researchers at Statistics Netherlands (CBS) have collaborated with colleagues from Statistics Canada (StatCan) on a joint vision paper about effective data stewardship, which allows (research) data to be accessed and be made accessible to the right users in the right manner. This is particularly important in crisis situations.

Data stewardship

The COVID-19 crisis has affected the whole of society and brought with it many uncertainties. ‘At the same time there is a lot of fake news, while the need for reliable information is so great right now. Reliable information is needed to tackle the crisis properly from a policy point of view, to conduct scientific research, but also to find out how to deal with the situation as a society,’ says Florian Henning, Data Officer at CBS. According to him, the situation requires effective data stewardship. ‘This means governing and establishing processes that will make available the right data – of the requisite quality and reliability – to the right user, safely and at the right time. This is particularly important in crisis situations.’

Respond rapidly and flexibly to crises

As NSOs worldwide play an important role in this respect, CBS and Statistics Canada have studied how other NSOs have tackled this and how this might be leveraged in future crisis responses. ‘What is the role of an NSO in ensuring that the right data become available at the right time and in the right place? And how is this leveraged in order to respond rapidly and flexibly to a crisis? The joint vision paper addresses four different questions: which challenges are NSOs currently facing; why do they play a unique role in governing and leveraging data during a crisis; what framework conditions should be created in order to ensure proper handling of the (new) tasks at hand, and what are the lessons learned and strategies for the future?’

’A data-driven crisis response by central government requires a proper, government-wide data strategy, which defines the roles and responsibilities of the various public authorities’

Data strategy necessary

One of the findings is that data raise an organisational issue in times of crisis, Henning says. ‘A data-driven crisis response by central government requires a proper, government-wide data strategy, one which defines the roles and responsibilities of the various public authorities. This applies both nationally and internationally.’ The Netherlands is also working hard on this. ‘Nevertheless, we can learn from other countries. Something we do not have in the Netherlands but which is already in place in New Zealand, for instance, is a national chief data steward. This person controls the use, the management and the security of all government data.’

Flexible due to a proper infrastructure

Another recommendation concerns data infrastructure and data technology. Henning explains: ‘In the vision paper, we describe how standardisation of technology and processes is key to ensuring a rapid response to crises. A data ecosystem in which various organisations such as central authorities and knowledge institutes can work together based on the same standards will provide more flexibility in such situations. In addition, the paper mentions the need to access new data sources: ‘Primary observation with surveys often takes too long in times of crisis,’ says Henning. ‘It is precisely the time when secondary sources from partners must be brought in quickly. A data ecosystem offers more opportunities for this.’

Woman receiving COVID-19 vaccine
© Hollandse Hoogte / Herman Wouters

Data catalogue

The authors of the vision paper advocate a national data catalogue, in which data are listed according to the FAIR principle: findable, accessible, interoperable and reusable. Although the Netherlands has a government open data portal, Henning also sees a future for a government-wide catalogue that makes transparent what other data the government has at its disposal. ‘Such a data catalogue does not provide the data themselves but rather a description of which data and where these are being managed. In this way, public organisations will know from each other which data are available and how it can allow them to work even more data-driven.’

Working with data is a team sport

The collaboration with Statistics Canada in the above area stems from a long-standing good relationship between the two statistical offices. Henning comments: ‘StatCan is a strong partner. Two years ago, StatCan and CBS were reflecting together on the question how they could prepare for the future. The advent of COVID-19 lent a greater sense of urgency to finding the answer to this question.’ Crystal Sewards, who is involved in this project on behalf of StatCan: ‘It has been a truly rewarding and interesting endeavour. We have learned much from each other, in terms of how we respond in our countries to the ever-changing data landscape and the ever-evolving needs of citizens, organisations, businesses and other levels of government. The Chief Statistician of Canada is often quoted as stating that “data is a team sport”. We hope we can find other joint projects which will be of interest to both our organisations.’ Both Statistics Canada and Statistics Netherlands are members of a UNECE Task Force on Data Stewardship. The task force is creating a roadmap and action plan to support NSOs in determining their role as it relates to the leveraging and governing of data.