Data has played an important role in responding to the Covid-19 pandemic, driving newfound recognition of its value in understanding society and shaping policy. Ed Humpherson, Director General of the Office for Statistics Regulation (OSR), discusses the significance of data in a time of crisis.
One of the features of the pandemic is that it has taught us the value of things that may have been taken for granted: family, social contact, key workers who keep society going.
To that list I’d add data. I wrote last month that public access to trustworthy data has been one of the stories of this pandemic. As every week goes by, data seem more and more central to public discourse. Just look at the R number: until recently an obscure technical term to describe patterns of infection reproduction, it has become common currency, with immense attention invested in small movements above or below 1. At the OSR, we published a short statement on the publication of the R number on 9 June. Data has come out of the shadows.
Why is this? Why has the trustworthiness, quality and value of data played such a prominent role in discussions of the pandemic?
There are three main factors.
First, this is a pandemic that has affected everyone in the country. We have all changed our behaviours and lives in a way that was unimaginable even a few months ago. This degree of public behaviour change has been possible at least in part because regular publication of data on cases, excess deaths, care homes, and pressures on health services have shown us the scale of the pandemic. When we hear that adopting social distancing really matters, we can see it immediately in the data. This has been a society-wide event, best understood through the lens of aggregated data on society.
Second, the governments of the UK have been making big decisions on the basis of data and other forms of scientific evidence. Transparency is a basic requirement of democratic legitimacy: to share the data on which key decisions are made. The UK’s four governments have sought to be transparent with their data during the pandemic. Indeed, my team at the OSR have repeatedly advocated the publication of the UK Government’s administrative data on issues like transport use, public health, social security claims and homelessness. And government analysts across the UK have risen to the challenge to make existing and new data available to the public. It’s been an immense effort by analysts in the Welsh Government, Scottish Government, Northern Ireland administration, and in the Whitehall departments to rise to this challenge.
The administrative data research community has long known of, and talked about, the benefits to society of use of administrative data... The pandemic demonstrates the value very well indeed.
Third, we are learning more about the pandemic all the time – its patterns of transmission, the vulnerabilities of different parts of society. The focus on the differential mortality impacts for different ethnicities is only possible because of a careful and rigorous analysis of the underlying datasets by analysts in agencies like the Office for National Statistics (ONS), Public Health England and researchers at the Institute for Fiscal Studies. Their efforts have been replicated by analysts in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Data help us understand more about the pandemic, in something approaching real time.
Our work at the OSR focuses on the foundations of public confidence in statistics and data. We have seen that these foundations – trustworthiness, quality, value – apply with particular force during a pandemic. People want to be sure that data they are hearing and seeing are reliable and relevant. You can read more about our work here.
The administrative data research community has long known of, and talked about, the benefits to society of use of administrative data. At times, it has felt like an uphill struggle to convince stakeholders that this should be a priority. The pandemic demonstrates the value very well indeed.
We will never have a better opportunity to make the case that data are hugely valuable to society. We should make sure we take it.
Ed Humpherson is a member of the ADR UK Programme Delivery Board.
This blog was also published on the Office for Statistics Regulation website.