The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Communication of statistics in times of fake news

In a recent paper Emanuele Baldacci, (Director, Eurostat) and Felicia Pelagalli, (President, InnovaFiducia) deal with the ‘challenges for official statistics of changes in the information market spurred by network technology, data revolution and changes in information consumers’ behaviours’ (p.3)

Three scenarios

The status-quo or bad scenario:

‘Information will continue to be consumed via multiple decentralized channels, with new information intermediaries emerging through social platforms, digital opinion leaders, technologies that reinforce belonging to peers with similar profiles and backgrounds, including in terms of beliefs.’  … ‘Under this scenario it is likely that increased competition from alternative data providers will put pressure on the official statistics position in the information ecosystem and lead to drastic reduction of public resources invested in official statistics, as a result of the perceived lack of relevance.’ (p.8)

 

The ugly scenario:

‘Big oligopoly giants will emerge by integrating technologies, data and content and providing these to a variety of smaller scale platforms and information intermediaries, with limited pricing power for further dissemination. In this scenario, data generated by sensors and machines connected to the network will increasingly create smart information for individuals. However, individuals will not participate in the data processing task, but will be mostly confined to crowdsourcing data for digital platforms and using information services.’
‘In this scenario, official statistics will be further marginalized and its very existence could be put in jeopardy. More importantly, no public authority with significant influence could be in charge of assessing the quality of data used in the information markets. Statistics as a public good may be curtailed and limited to a narrow set of dimensions. …  Official statisticians will appear as old dinosaurs on the way to extinction, separated from the data ecosystem by a huge technology and capability gap.’ (p.9)

 

The good scenario:

The authors do not stop here. They also see a good scenario, but a scenario that implies a huge engagement.

This scenario is ‘predicated on two major assumptions.
First, the information market will be increasingly competitive by sound regulations that prevent the emergence of dominant positions in countries and even more important across them.
Second, official statistics pursue a strong modernization to evolve towards the production of smart statistics, which fully leverage technology and new data sources while maintaining and enhancing the quality of the data provided to the public.
In this scenario, official statistics will generate new more sophisticated data analytics that cater to different users by tailored information services. It uses network technologies (e.g., blockchain, networks) to involve individuals, companies and institutions in the design, collection, processing and dissemination of statistics. It engages users with open collaborative tools and invests heavily in data literacy to ensure their usability. It strengthens skills and capacity on statistical communication to help users understand in transparent manners what are the strengths and limitations of official statistics.’ (p. 9/10)

 

Actions needed to face the challenges ahead

The good scenario already depicts some needed actions to be taken by official statisticians. The authors conclude with proposals that are not really new, ideas that have been on the table for some time but are not so easy to implement.

‘It is important to change mindsets and practices which have been established, in order to put in contact the citizens with official statistics, to make data accessible, to expand the understanding of their analysis, to support individuals, business and institutions in the decision-making process.

The key issue is how to be authoritative and to develop quality knowledge in the new and changing information market. It is important to know the rules and languages of the media platforms used for communication; to overcome the technicalities; to tell stories close to the people; to create communities around specific themes; to develop among citizens the ability to read the data and
understand what is behind the statistical process. In summary, put people at the center (overused phrase, but extremely valuable):
⎯ communicate statistics through engaging experiences and relevant to the people who benefit from them;
⎯ customize the content;
⎯ adopt “user analytics” to acquire the knowledge of the “users” through the analysis of data (web and social analytics) and the understanding of people’s interaction with the different platforms.’ (p.11)

And the concluding words call for external assistance:

‘It will be essential for statisticians to build more tailored data insight services and team up with communication experts to play a more proactive role in contrasting fake news, checking facts appropriately and building users’ capacity to harness the power of data.’ (p.12)

 

 

 

 

 

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Post Post-Truth

postfaktisch

‘Fake-news’ and ‘post-truth’ (postfaktisch) are the words dominating today many discussions about truth in communication.

' ... in post-truth [post] has a meaning more like ‘belonging to a time in which the specified concept [truth] has become unimportant or irrelevant’' (https://www.oxforddictionaries.com/press/news/2016/11/15/WOTY-16).

False information or even lies are not new in the information business. And therefore many, and many more websites help to separate wrong from right:

The Reporters’ Lab maintains a database of global fact-checking sites.

snip_factcheckingplaces

And Alexios Mantzarlis ‘collected 366 links, one for each day of the year …  to understand fact-checking in 2016′.

 

Official Statistics’ Ethical Codex

Officials Statistics collect, analyze and disseminate statistical information since long and are also confronted with wrong citations, misuse of statistics and lies. Many of the ethical codices of official statistics recommend acting against such false information.

‘In 1992, the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) adopted the fundamental principles of official statistics in the UNECE region. The United Nations Statistical Commission adopted these principles in 1994 at the global level. The Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) endorsed the Fundamental Principles of Official Statistics in 2013; and in January 2014, they were adopted by General Assembly. This recognition at the highest political level underlines that official statistics – reliable and objective information – is crucial for decision making.’

snip_funprinciplesun

Two paragraphs are of special interest:

‘ 2. Professional standards and ethics
To retain trust in official statistics, the statistical agencies need to decide according to strictly professional considerations, including scientific principles and professional ethics, on the methods and procedures for the collection, processing, storage and presentation of statistical data.’

AND:

‘4. Prevention of misuse
The statistical agencies are entitled to comment on erroneous interpretation and misuse of statistics.’

The European Statistics Code of Practice says in principle 1:

1.7: The National Statistical Institute and Eurostat and, where appropriate, other statistical authorities, comment publicly on statistical issues, including criticisms and misuses of statistics as far as considered suitable.

snip_funprinciplesess

N.B: Wikipedia’s page on Misuse of statistics presents a broad view how readers can be fooled by many types of misuse.

It’s dissemination – …

False – and especially deliberately false – information as a weapon in manipulating decisions isn’t new either. But new is how such information spreads: with the help of social media dissemination gains a new level  (some say like earlier Gutenberg’s printing press ).

Anne Applebaum gives a practical illustration of how it can work:

‘I was a victim of a Russian smear campaign. I understand the power of fake news.

It was a peculiar experience, but I learned a lot. As I watched the story move around the Web, I saw how the worlds of fake websites and fake news exist to reinforce one another and give falsehood credence. Many of the websites quoted not the original, dodgy source, but one another. There were more phony sites than I’d realized, though I also learned that many of their “followers” (maybe even most of them) are bots — bits of computer code that can be programmed to imitate human social media accounts and told to pass on particular stories.
….
But it is also true that we are living through a global media revolution, that people are hearing and digesting political information in brand-new ways and that nobody yet understands the consequences. Fake stories are easier to create, fake websites can be designed to host them, and social media rapidly disseminates disinformation that people trust because they get it from friends. This radical revolution has happened without many politicians noticing or caring — unless, like me, they happened to have seen how the new system of information exchange works.’

 

2017

May 2017 become the year of people who know about the power and the dangers of misleading information!
My best wishes to the colleagues in Official Statistics and their professional producing and disseminating information …. and perhaps statistical dissemination will need to be more active on social media, too.

 

 

United Statisticians of Europe

 Head of Elstat (Statistics Greece) faces an official criminal investigation

Kerin Hope (Athens) from  Financial Times reports (27.11.2011):  
‘The head of Elstat, Greece’s new independent statistics agency, faces an official criminal investigation for allegedly inflating the scale of the country’s fiscal crisis and acting against the Greek national interest.
Andreas Georgiou, who worked at the International Monetary Fund for 20 years, was appointed in 2010 by agreement with the fund and the European Commission to clean up Greek statistics after years of official fudging by the finance ministry.
“I am being prosecuted for not cooking the books,” Mr Georgiou told the Financial Times. “We would like to be a good, boring institution doing its job. Unfortunately, in Greece statistics is a combat sport.”’

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Statement of the European Statistical System Committee

 on recent developments concerning ELSTAT in Greece

ESS Logo

Press Release  07.02.13

‘Statement of the Members of the European Statistical System (composed of Eurostat and National Statistical Institutes of EU/EFTA Member States) on recent developments concerning ELSTAT in Greece. 

We the undersigned, who collectively as members of the European Statistical System Committee are responsible for overseeing the production of European Statistics to be in compliance with the highest professional standards throughout the European Union, wish to express our deep concern at recent developments with regard to ELSTAT in Greece, which
we believe can affect not only the integrity of official statistics in that country, but also the functioning of the European Statistical System as a whole.

While fully respecting the independence of national judicial systems and abstaining from commenting on on-going court cases, we are concerned that political debates surrounding judicial action taken against the Head of the Greek statistical office (ELSTAT) and the calling into question of the validity of data which have repeatedly passed the stringent quality checks applied by Eurostat to ensure full compliance with European law seem to disregard commonly agreed European procedures. …

… We are confident that Greek authorities will do everything necessary to protect the independence of ELSTAT, its management and its staff from political and all other interference and support ELSTAT in ensuring that statistics in Greece are produced in line with the principles of the European Statistics Code of Practice.

The European Statistical System will very closely observe the further developments in the Greek statistical system.

The Director General of Eurostat and the Presidents/Directors General
of National Statistical Institutes of the European Union and EFTA’

-> full press release of ESSC (European Statistical System Committee) and link page

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Background information.

Eurostat 2010 Visit to Greece Report

EDP = Excessive Deficit Procedure

————–

‘… from August 2010, when I took up my post, and for five consecutive biannual publications, the Greek public finance statistics have been accepted by Eurostat without any reservations, following the envisaged checks and validations, and the reliability of these statistics is not doubted by any European or international institution. This holds true also for the fiscal deficit
of 2009, for the calculation of which Eurostat has repeatedly and formally declared that it has been carried out in accordance with the rules and methodology that are provided for in a binding manner in European Law….’

Europe has an Open Data Portal, too

The European Commission

opened its Open Data Portal some days ago.
Powered by CKAN.
.
Most of the 5811 datasets (97%) are statistical ones provided by Eurostat.
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Top Publishers
Eurostat (5634 datasets)
European Environment Agency (106 datasets)
Joint Research Centre (37 datasets)
Directorate-General for Health and Consumers (12 datasets)
Publications Office (11 datasets)
Directorate-General for Education and Culture (3 datasets)
Directorate-General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology (2 datasets)
Directorate-General for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion (1 datasets)
Directorate-General for Enterprise and Industry (1 datasets)
Directorate-General for Regional and Urban Policy (1 datasets)‘.

Linked Open Data are provided

An important step! ‘The European Commission Open Data Portal is well aligned with the initiatives of linked data and semantic web technologies. The dataset metadata is available as triples on triple store and attached to the dataset records.’

One App for the moment…

… but an interesting one creating visualisations based on RDF input, with javascript based output (Highcharts charting library).
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cubevizExample
CubeViz is a facetted browser for statistical data utilizing the RDF Data Cube vocabulary which is the state-of-the-art in representing statistical data in RDF. This vocabulary is compatible with SDMX and increasingly being adopted.’

EU Energy Data Visualisation

Last week I attended a meeting on user support at Eurostat and we’ve seen a presentation of a cute tool which was developed during the “Eurostat Hackday”. No, this was not an excercise on how to hack the Eurostat website to jeopardize EU statistics dissemination. It was an Open Knowledge Foundation initiative to build some tools with available EU data without any pre-defined guidelines for developers. The event was supported by Eurostat (but only after overcoming the fear of being hacked ;-)) and was organized on 16th December 2010 (see the website for more information).

On one hand I find the tool very appealing from visual and content point of view, on another it demonstrates the opportunities of making data publicly available and promoting cooperation with universities and independant developers.

You can click on the picture to open the tool or read more on it’s background on the Open Knowledge Foundation Blog.

Enjoy 🙂

EU Energy indicators visualisation tool