Sun. Dec 5th, 2021

Data, Database and Decision-making

Sherbaz Ali Khan

Let me mention at the beginning that I am far from being a data scientist, so the narration here is not over blessed with technicalities and the language used might not sound that of a data management expert, however, what I want to share is some common observation regarding the importance, necessity, and role of data in our lives and collective decision making.

Data has to do much with our everyday life and the matters related to it. Informally, in our everyday conversation of trivia, we continuously make sense of data, interpret, exchange and take help from data in our understating and making other understand. This is more voluntarily process of keeping ourselves abreast with matters of the world around us, which helps in determining of what, when, why, how, which and where aspects everything. We cannot assume change in something without substantiating it in data. At individual level, our informal and voluntary data is received and interpreted by our five senses including the senses of touch, sight, hearing, smell and taste with help of our brain, and as a result we establish an opinion about presence/prevalence, quantity, quality, kind, range and scale and so on. On the other hand, in our formal and involuntary efforts and undertakings, we opt for data through more conscious and systematic efforts. This involves mostly steps such as obtaining it in the first place, followed by establishing database, repository or data registry for storage of data and continuous updating, making data available for where it is needed and utilizing it for decision making and action.

In our collective lives, availability of data is imperative for decision making, inclusion, transparency and good governance of public goods and services. It provides a realistic picture and sound base for regular decision making and resource allocations as well as decision making and implementation of new initiatives and programs for short, medium and long term. Without availability of data or incomplete data, decisions are based on rough estimations, and where data and decision-making mismatch; there could be under or over allocation of resources, insufficient and irrelevant implementation mechanisms, discrepancies in the results, and gaps in addressing the issues and resultant perpetuation of unchanged situation. From right-based perspective, unavailability, partial availability and under or over-representation of data can result in violation of basic human rights. If a person, household or a section of society remain out of reach from some public good or service, or goods and services provided by any other service provider, that equals violation of rights. Similarly, if undue advantage is provided somewhere, that is again violation of rights of those who really deserve that.

So, how is the situation of data and data management in our country? Well, when we search for data in various fields of interest, what happens is we come across various types of data with difficulty of which one to rely on. Data through various sources at national, provincial and district level either contradict each other or partially corroborate. Given the situation, the data mostly relied on and taken as authentic is that of UN agencies, international financial institutions and NGOs, specific public or private sector programs, and research work done by individuals or organizations. The issues with data and data management clearly shows the trend that there has been less interest on the part of successive governments in evolving effective data management systems. Even if there were efforts on this front, the implementation, monitoring and sustainability has not been effective to the extent needed. Politicians might be more interested in voters’ list (mostly manipulated) than evidence-based decision making for their constituencies. An effective data management system might need to regulate the informal sector in addition to formal sector, which is tantamount to instigation of resistance from powerful elite.

It is of common observance in our country, that every time, for public or private programs of socio-economic development or other interventions, assessments are carried out to find about the demography of the target areas. This exercise can be avoided if there is updated data available with the data registry. Data collection in past had been a hazardous task owing to the manual work of data collection, tabulation and analysis. In current times, data collection has become a lot easier and time and labor intensive due to advances in technology. However, the advancement in technology has not been applied universally due to the limited capacity of data registries as well as lack of political will on the part of the governments. Even the results of Census have been controversial, and there is lack of agreement on the results on the part of provinces and various segments of the society.

Data could be needed on countless subjects, fields and variables of interest, however some examples of much needed data for government and its different tiers, and other service providers is data of population based on gender segregation, demography, socio-economic status including that of education, health, employability, access to land and other assets, and basic amenities of life. This data could be collected through accurate and vigorous mechanisms and every effort made to maintain a data base at a central and provincial data base registry. The data once collected, could be updated on regular basis, and made available to all the ministries, divisions, departments, local governments, private sector organizations, service providers and civil society organizations. Equally important is data related to various categories within the population. This include data on very poor, poor and non-poor segment of the population, which has not been realistically collected and updated regularly. This situation sometimes results in reaching of the benefits to undeserving people, while those deserving remaining exclusive. The example of cash being received under social protection program; BISP, by many undeserving people is just one of the examples. However, currently under Ehsaas Program, much attention has been paid to accuracy and updating the data with use of technology and ensuring accountability. The precision of data has been ascertained through eliminating those, who had been receiving the cash transfers undeservingly.

In an emergency situation, current example which is COVID19, when there is need of provision of basic necessities under a social protection mechanism for the deserving people including extreme poor, vulnerable, daily wagers and lower income segment of the society, the question arises whether this will reach the real intended beneficiary or not, one of the potential reasons being unavailability or insufficient data. In such situations, the decisions are mostly based on the estimation provided by government departments, elected representatives or notables of the concerned areas. The data thus provided, is mostly subservient to the wishes of these informants, and mismatched with the prevalent situation. Therefore, it is not surprising that there is uproar from those who have not been reached out currently for provision of emergency support, and also that is one of the reasons why so many social protection programs in past did not show the desired impact.

Now, in an era of more access to data and information, with added advantage of technological advancement, it is within reach to have actual data and update it as per desired timeframe. However, here comes the importance of the data repository or data registry. Equally important is the capacity of the data registry and its coordination with government functionaries and other stakeholders. Also, there is need for the data registry to be free from any kind of pressure, whether political or otherwise. The registry should be fully capacitated with human, financial, technical and logistical resources. Finally, one of the top priorities of the current government is institutional reforms, while developing and implementing the institutional reforms, data management and strengthening of data registry should be one of the top priorities.

Sherbaz Ali Khan is a development professional with over six years of experience in community development. He holds a master’s degree in Sustainable International Development from Brandeis University, USA.

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