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‘Data Quality Issues’: The Devil is in the Detail

Data Quality Issue

Statistics is a science of collecting, organising, analysing the scattered empirical data in order to conceptualise meaning from it. It acts as a tool for arriving at a wiser decision for the whole population based on ground reality represented in terms of numerical data collected from a representative ‘sample’.

The primary aim of the official statistics system is to provide timely, reliable and comprehensive data in order to facilitate evidence-based decision making towards policy formulation, monitoring, evaluation and recommendations for further improvement. It helps governments to track programs, their impact and outcomes for mid-course corrections. Hence, the reliability of data and organizations collecting data in the rapidly changing economy and society is fundamental to good governance. Governments have been implementing the recommendations of National Statistical Commission headed by Dr C. Rangarajan (2000-2001) to reform the statistical system of India.

Concerns about Data Quality

In this context recent debates about ‘draft’ NSO data about household consumption expenditure, employment survey and other socio-economic estimates should be looked at which have issues of ‘data quality’.

Data quality implies accuracy, conformity (i.e. conformity to the standard data formats created by an organization), consistency (i.e. no conflicts between the same data values in different systems), reliability among other factors.

Lack of data quality is not a new concern. Statistical puzzles like ‘jobless growth’, sharp fluctuations in poverty estimates, ‘thin’ sample size of NSSO in comparison to population growth, lack of adequate coverage were debated.

Moreover, questioning the NSO data it is argued, “Household surveys (S) were capturing less and less of consumption as revealed by an alternative calculation — the national accounts (NA)…The S/NA ratio in India in the 1950’s and 1960’s was upwards of 95 per cent”. The S/NA ratio in India has collapsed to just 33 per cent in 2017-18 the second-lowest ever recorded around the world “for economies without hyper-inflation (when S/NA ratio really gets distorted) and with populations above 10 million.”

Government of India also rejected the media reports about ‘leaked draft’ Household Consumer Expenditure Survey – “…significant increase in the divergence in not only the levels in the consumption pattern but also the direction of the change when compared to the other administrative data sources like the actual production of goods and services…”

Further, the response biases by the respondents have been glaringly visible in recent surveys making them less reliable which boils down to basic behavioural economics. Deniability of having facilities is highest when respondents perceive more incentives in it especially when benefits of government programs are targeted and reaching them much more than before (e.g. DBT). Memory lapses and respondent fatigue cause biases adversely affecting the data quality.

Administrative Challenges

Indian official statistics system is laterally decentralized among various Ministries of the Government of India (GOI) at the central level, and vertically decentralized, between the Centre and the States. The primary data mostly flow from the States. When state governments were requested to arrange for staff to conduct the fieldwork, there were delays in finalising and releasing results. Hence, improvement in the State Statistical System is critical to improvement in the National Statistical System. Manpower requirements are met by a judicious mix of existing and outsourced staff. Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation provides technical advice to the State Governments for improving the state statistical systems.

Steps taken to address the challenges

NITI Aayog has also stressed on the revamp and modernisation of the Indian statistical system so that real-time data is captured and used for policy analysis. Responding to the challenges in the National Statistical System, the Modi government took up systemic reforms:

  • The merger of CSO and NSSO into a single entity called the National Statistical Office (NSO) was aimed at leveraging the strengths of the two organisations so that it can meet the increasing demands. Notably, it was decision taken in 2005 but remained on paper since then. In the restructuring exercise, the administrative, coordination and planning activities of MoSPI have also been brought into NSO. It will ensure greater synergies amongst the available statistical manpower and improve data quality not only for survey data but also for administrative statistics.
  • Support for Statistical Strengthening (SSS) Scheme, with the help of the World Bank, is being implemented in States who have signed Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to improve their statistical systems. Funds are being utilized for the creation of integrated State databases, compilation of core indicators such as Consumer Price Index and State level Index of Industrial Production and is strengthening of physical and IT infrastructure.
  • Adopted the United Nations Fundamental Principles of Official Statistics (UNFPOS) in May, 2016 which strengthens the national statistical system in producing reliable data by adhering to internationally agreed professional and scientific standards.
  • All primary data collected is made available to the public free of cost since April, 2019
  • For effective management of survey operations, seamless transition from Paper Aided Personal Interview (PAPI) system to Computer Aided Personal Interview (CAPI) module is being carried out.
  • National Integrated Information Platform (NIIP) is being developed for the national statistical system covering the Central Government and State Governments to facilitate the availability of key information on the platform for the benefit of users. This will also have a dashboard for socio-economic indicators for real-time monitoring and now-casting of macro-economic indicators.
  • Formulated a Draft National Policy on Official Statistics based on the recommendations of the National Statistical Commission and the United Nations Fundamental Principles of Official Statistics (UNFPOS)
  • The Collection of Statistics Act, 2008 amended to extend it to Jammu and Kashmir to strengthen its data collection mechanism.
  • In the ongoing Seventh Economic Census, the field officers of Field Operations Division, NSS are playing a prominent role in the supervision of data collection from households and enterprises.
  • National Indicator Framework (NIF) for monitoring the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)
  • National Quality Assurance Framework (NQAF) is in place from April 2018.
  • Government is separately pursuing the ISO:9000 certifications for its statistical processes, and presently, the National Accounts Division, the Price Statistics Division and the Survey Design and Research Division of NSO are ISO:9000 certified.
  • Some of the e-governance projects do follow the Metadata and Data Standards (MDDS)
Vision 2024

Systemic reform is an ongoing process. With technology penetration at the grassroots level under ‘Digital India’, vast amount of Big Data is being generated which can be harnessed for smart governance. Achieving USD 5 trillion economies requires real-time monitoring of multi-dimensional parameters of economy. The Vision 2024 of Modi government stipulates long term structural reforms to strengthen the Statistical System of India for “coordinating and harmonizing the metadata for statistical products available in the country using technological interventions.” Some steps that will be taken as below:

  • Building sound national data infrastructure for future governance using Digital Technologies.
  • Efforts are on by various agencies for improving the existing registries as also creation of new ones that do not exist.
  • Efforts are on by the Survey of India for mapping the geographic terrain using drones and high-resolution imagery.
  • Establishing a statistical framework for operationalising the Generic Statistical Business Process Model (GSBPM) in statistical operations and services. This will involve the integration of statistical processes, statistical datasets and convergence of multi-disciplinary concepts and definitions.
  • Real time monitoring of various indicators will be enabled.

Thus, the government is working towards structural reforms to have a robust statistical system with improved statistical processes and products that are relevant, accurate, reliable, timely, accessible, coherent, comparable – spatially, temporally and internationally. It will ensure smarter governance harnessing Big Data emanating from the vast population of India. With better data quality aided by technology and streamlined administration, the reports released by NSO will be more useful for policy.

“Today Data is the greatest asset. Both opportunities as well as the biggest challenges are being created by the global flow of data. Mountains of data are being created. There is a race to control them because it is believed that the controller of data will dominate the future.” – PM Modi at the World Economic Forum (Jan 2018)