Why statistics and official data matter

20 October 2020

By Steve MacFeely, Chief Statistician, UNCTAD



A decade ago, on 20 October 2010, the United Nations celebrated World Statistics Day for the first time. This year the celebration is timely, not only because it marks the 10th anniversary, but also because it happens in the middle of the online World Data Forum.

Like other global events, the forum has had to adapt to the challenges of COVID-19 and is taking place virtually for the first time ever.

By altering the format of the forum, the pandemic has also reminded us of the important role that statistics play in our lives.

COVID-19 has put an intense spotlight on statistics. The numbers of cases, deaths and infection rates are reported by governments and media outlets daily around the world – and discussed by everyone.

So, on one level, it appears that statistics have never enjoyed such recognition as a critical tool for supporting decision-making and providing public accountability.

Yet official statistics enjoy a much more dichotomous existence, as simultaneously we see examples from around the world where statistics are ignored by public leaders and replaced with misinformation and fake news.

Today, in the midst of the data revolution, official statistics are competing with myriad sources of information, all claiming to be authoritative. Science is at risk of being drowned out by a sea of irrelevance.

Celebrating World Statistics Day is an opportunity therefore to reflect on why official data and statistics are so important. Used judiciously, they are a tool for liberation and enlightenment, but they can also be misused as a weapon for exploitation.

World Statistics Day therefore also provides an opportunity to acknowledge the importance of the UN Fundamental Principles of Official Statistics and the UN Quality Assurance Framework.