Noble: The confidence-trick and the Central Statistical Office; T&T urgently needs data handling upgrade

One of the most dangerous things in life is to have someone ‘sweet talk’ you while being inauthentic. They say all the right words you want to hear, but the words do not mean a thing! 

The Joint Select Committee on the Central Statistical Office (CSO) had words but nothing else! There were some learned people in the room just voicing words to sound important, but they were just noisy tin pans rushing down a dirty drain after the rainfall. 

Photo: Consumer data is a valuable commodity.
(via Pexels)

As a country, we have nowhere to go if these are our leaders! The Chairperson was maybe too full of patience. 

The country has been mouthing that we would replace the outdated (1952) Statistics Act and introduce a new organisation: the National Statistics Institute of Trinidad and Tobago (NSITT). This action would reverse the more than three decades of decline of the CSO. We brought down consultants from Sweden who made recommendations over 12 years ago. 

Full disclosure: In 2015, I was invited with others to join a task force to refine those recommendations and to suggest the implementation processes. I am also the major shareholder in a 38-year-old market research company that is a heavy user of the national statistics supplied by the CSO.

I am an advocate for the use of large data sets to chart the progress of a business or our country. I believe that the academic community can benefit the nation by using micro-data. 

Photo: Getting to grips with “big data”.

The Bill to create the NSITT was introduced in the House of Representatives on June 20, 2018, after being brought forward from the previous session but lapsed at the close of the 11th Parliament and was not re-introduced. 

How serious are we, as a country, to be happy to operate with inadequate data legislation in 2022? How can those legislators sleep? The issue is more significant than the overhaul or remaking of the CSO—it is about how we manage data. 

We give up personal data freely each day, and we should never forget the Cambridge Analytica episode when we surprisingly received political messages on our phones. 

Shoshana Zuboff, professor emerita at Harvard Business School, coined the term ‘surveillance capitalism’ to describe how large companies monetise our data. 

Image: Big Data is watching you…

Have you ever searched for a shoe online and then been bombarded by ads? That is an example of how necessary our legislation must be updated. But instead, our legislators conflate the issues and then hang the problem on the CSO, which we need to become updated and equal to the challenge of helping the nation be ready for the future.

Many officials, from Minister Colm Imbert to President-General Ancel Roget, have used or commented on the CSO data. The Central Bank, a long-time user and collaborator, needs the CSO, as does the Ministry of Trade and ExportTT and the Ministry of Labour. 

Let us be clear. This discussion is not about the CSO as a single entity but our capacity to collect data to inform our national decisions and the national statistical system. 

The Government and several private sector companies collect valuable data but may not handle it well or even use it. The NSITT was going to upgrade the skill sets of these companies and coordinate the data sets so that we could have better tools to manage society and the economy. The NSITT was to get all our data suppliers up to global standards.

Photo: Minister of Planning and Development Pennelope Beckles is the line minister with responsibility for the CSO.

In July 2015, Ms Joanne Deoraj, then deputy permanent secretary of the Ministry of Planning and Development, noted: “It is the basis for a country to learn the reliable statistical systems that produce data to design and monitor national development policies and programmes. Equally important is the development of a national strategy to connect data to meet our reporting obligations as a nation-state to regional and international agencies.” 

Ms Deoraj reported: “…we have been advised that Cabinet has accepted all the recommendations of the team as it relates to developing the national statistical office, in relation to revised legislation, the organisation for infrastructure and our relationship with users and suppliers.” 

These comments were made before the 2015 elections. The Task Force, earlier referenced, had a simple task: develop the nuances of implementation. There was trade union representation. Everybody and his brother, who would be remotely connected in making the project happen, was at the table. Seven years later, the two political parties are no further along the path. 

Image: A satirical take at data protection.

Unlike the very apt observations of Dr Terrence Farrell, the most the esteemed members could offer is the red herring of confidentiality! Dr Farrell was correct in his opinion about the need for independence of the NSITT board. 

The Committee members were happy to have the CSO go cap in hand to influence the Board of Inland Revenue (BIR) (which will help us understand income inequality) and the National Insurance Board (NIB) (to help us understand better the labour situation) into cooperating. To claim that there is a genuine fear of confidentiality breaches is to ignore the governing law. 

The Statistics Act, Chapter 19:02, informs that “every person employed in the execution of any duty under this Act shall before entering on his duties … take an oath”.  

This oath proscribes the disclosure of any knowledge or information they encounter in performing their duties. Their pledges last beyond their time of employment. 

Photo: Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg prepares to speak to the US Congress.
(Copyright NY Times)

We act as though we are world-class data-protection inventors! This issue is well-known globally and has prescribed measures to ensure the safety of one’s identity and information. Why not adopt those? 

Here is how the UK manages their administrative data

The Committee criticised the CSO’s performance with a straight face, forcing the budget-constrained Acting Director to sheepishly point to hiring two statisticians! Talk about wanting water from a stone! 

The Task Force’s 2017 Report identified the need for more staff and computers. One of my colleagues wrote: “one of the most critical aspects of the new organisation is the human component and the structure of the new independent organisation… simply taking the old template and… tweaking it is not the best way forward.” 

Image: A graphic representing online data.

Yet in 2022, the Committee wants the CSO to do just that! Which successful company in Trinidad and Tobago does that? 

As a country, we love foreign recommendations. Therefore, consider the IMF 2021 Article 1V consultations report: “Staff welcomes progress in improving data quality and timeliness and calls for further actions to enhance national statistics.”

The IMF commended the CSO on implementing the e-GDDS—a vital data transparency framework—in October 2021. Do we know what the IMF wanted more of? Labour data and household surveys, along with the reporting of capital flow data. 

Compare this assessment with the 2018 report:

“[…] Data quality and timeliness continue to limit the ability to assess vulnerabilities and effectiveness of surveillance and policy-making… further efforts are needed to complete data improvements, particularly in national accounts and balance of payments.

Image: Surveillance capitalism.

“[…] Attention is also needed to improve the timeliness of social statistics (including on poverty and inequality). The household budget survey and the survey of living conditions need full funding to improve data quality and timeliness. The Economic Management Division of the Ministry of Finance needs to attract and retain staff…”

What is the Joint Select Committee’s response? We do not trust CSO to handle that data, and we do not think CSO does enough! This data collection thing costs too much money. 

Well, it must cost a lot of money should the right tools not be provided. CSO is still struggling to move to the computer age in data collection. The cost of our ignorance about official statistics enables corruption (Georgiou, 2021) which gives wings to our heritage funds. 

When will our leaders ever awake? This discussion is not a quibble. How else do we chart a future? 

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About Noble Philip

Noble Philip, a retired business executive, is trying to interpret Jesus’ relationships with the poor and rich among us. A Seeker, not a Saint.

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