The COVID-19 pandemic has posed many challenges for the global statistical community. During times of crisis, the world needed to digitalise quickly, make rapid decisions and collect new types of data to battle the disease. But how to maintain integrity and trust in data when decision-makers need to react fast? These questions and more were discussed at the United Nations World Data Forum 2021 on the 3-6 October in Switzerland.

Closing gala of the World Data Forum in Bern. Photo: Siim Esko

The UN World Data Forum is a high-level event that unites data and statistical experts across sectors. The Data Forum focuses on uniting various sectors in working with data to support the implementation of Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals. The event showcases practical solutions and hands-on experience, contributes to better data for policy-making, and addresses pressing issues faced by the global and statistical communities.

Data needed to come in days, not months. Surveys take too much time in an emergency.

Ronald Jansen, Assistant Director of the UN Statistics Division, highlighted the challenges of the pandemic clearly: “Data needed to come in days, not months. It needed to be quick. Surveys take too much time in an emergency. There were few data sources out that could provide suitable data, especially on a geographical level.” That’s where public-private partnerships come in. National statistical offices must adhere to internationally recognised standards and principles. “And intermediary partners, such as Positium, are important because they have experience working with mobile phone data,” Mr Jansen added.

Did you know that mobile data was used for policy input during COVID-19 in 40 countries? In Estonia, Ghana and The Gambia, mobile positioning data was used to analyse the mobility of the population during the pandemic in order to curb the spread of COVID-19. The three use cases were presented at the session TA 2.19, titled “How to adhere to the fundamental principles of official statistics when compiling data during the COVID-19 pandemic?”

A poll that was run during the Forum asked participants if mobile data is ready to be used for policymakers. Most said yes. In Estonia, mobile positioning data has been used for producing continuous statistics for tourism for nearly 10 years. The country is in a unique position in the world, leading a statistical revolution with methodological and practical know-how on mobile positioning data. Positium and Statistics Estonia shared their experience of working with the innovative data source during the COVID-19 pandemic with the global statistics community.

Siim Esko, Head of Sales and Marketing at Positium, kicked off his presentation with a provocative question: “Have you been asked to do something impossible?”. This was the situation with COVID-19. The pandemic launched a race for data as governments needed valuable insights to base their decisions on. Positium, in collaboration with Statistics Estonia, built a dashboard which showed population activity and mobility directions pre- and post-regulations for COVID-19. The public dashboard was crucial in public communication and gaining trust in governmental restrictions in Estonia, especially in the early stages of the pandemic.

In the long term, those who adhere to international principles in statistics win.

In such situations where data is needed quickly, practitioners emphasise the importance of upholding the principles of protecting confidentiality, maintaining quality and working based on professional considerations. Experts from Estonia, Japan, the International Telecommunication Union, United Nations Statistics Division and private companies Positium and Flowminder came together and formulated five core principles that can be used when working with similar projects under similar circumstances. Following these principles ensures the production of high-quality statistics without compromising confidentiality.

Positium hopes to keep working with statistical offices from around the world and help them harness mobile positioning data for the good of the society. We have been working with mobile positioning data for nearly 20 years, always putting quality and ethics in the forefront of our operations. As Siim Esko (Positium) puts it, “Trust is something that is earned and that can easily fade. In the long term, those who adhere to international principles in statistics win.”

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