Data from the producer perspective: Two days with the ONS

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City-REDI’s Tasos Kitsos is back from attending the International Economic Statistics Conference hosted by ONS. Here he provides a round-up of his experience.

These are some of my favourite ingredients for a conference;

  • A line-up of great speakers,
  • An audience full of interesting people,
  • A great balance between talking, debating, questioning and breaking up for coffee,

and I would say ONS’ International Economic Statistics Conference had them all. It was a very good experience all around which after two days left me with more questions and an eagerness to explore them more than I anticipated. Being predominantly a data user, it was the first time I have attended a conference focusing on the producer side of data.

It was very positive to see a realisation that times and needs are changing, and that we need to transform the way we produce our data and estimates – especially for exploring what big/smart as well as administrative data have to offer. For example, the ONS started exploring the use of VAT administrative data to inform its GDP estimates and this has great potential for the accuracy and timeliness of such data.

A lot of the discussions and talks revolved around the “big guns” of data such as GDP and national accounts (i.e. imports/exports). The topics were mainly around the eternal arguments of what we should count and how with contributions from international organisations such as the OECD and Eurostat. For example, what is the impact of the gig economy and how should it be accounted for? What is the problem with the 26% growth in Ireland’s GDP?

It was also great to see that work is being pursued in analysing productivity at the firm level as well as the new initiatives such as the Economic Statistics Centre of Excellence and the ONS Data Science Campus. The latter is expected to promote data science and, together with similar centres such as the Alan Turing Institute, will be the drive in the exploration of data and their use to improve decision making.

Closer to the realities of data availability at the moment, the only user-led session revolved around devolution and the data needs for mayors and local authorities to make better decisions faster. Through our work @CityREDI I am well aware of the need for more detailed and timely data at lower geographical levels. At the same time, users need to clarify what data they need and why, as well as to identify new sources of information since the resources in the traditional channels are limited.

However, overall, the issue over the lack of data is just a drop in the ocean given the lack of capacity to use this data for decision making. There are indeed very few local authorities that have the in-house capacity to process all the information they need to optimise their interventions, and there are even fewer places which host research institutes such as City-REDI to enhance these functions.

Last but certainly not least, the conference hosted a very interesting media session which identified the need to fight back against the misuse of data to get provocative headlines or create fake news. ONS has a pivotal role to play on that front but also each one of use has a duty to critically assess information in this time and age.

Overall then, it was nice to see so many people care about data and their production and use. On the other hand, and despite being a heavy user of data and an economist, I always like to remember that some things may not need measurement or justification (i.e. the benefits of education to the society) or that the methodologies we have are, by definition, based on assumptions which may not always be the most appropriate.

For example, before the 2016 methodology change in accounting exports, 40% of the Welsh exports were directed to the EU whilst after the methodological change 67% of the Welsh exports are directed to EU countries. Some may think this could change the Welsh results to the EU-referendum. Personally, I wouldn’t want the decision for such an important matter to be based on such a temporal (and temperamental!) metric.

To conclude, all in all the ONS conference was a great event. I left with more optimism for a positive transformation in the production and use of data and more aware of everyone’s duty to promote their good use.

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