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Data-driven development

Dr Murtaza Khuhro
Tuesday, Mar 05, 2024

The Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (PBS) stands as the principal government agency responsible for collecting and disseminating statistical data across various economic, social, and demographic dimensions within Pakistan. Given its pivotal role, questions often arise regarding the integrity and reliability of its data.

How credible is the data provided by the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics? This question probes the foundational trustworthiness of statistical information disseminated by the PBS across various domains.

Does the PBS employ scientifically rigorous and technologically advanced (digital) methodologies in gathering data, especially concerning the agriculture sector and informal economy? This inquiry delves into the specifics of data collection techniques, seeking to understand the extent of their modernization and scientific underpinning.

Can the agricultural data, particularly regarding crop cultivation and livestock, provided by the PBS, be deemed reliable? This question aims to evaluate the precision and accuracy of agricultural statistics, which are crucial for policy planning and economic assessment.

Is the statistical information on population demographics, housing conditions, educational facilities, health services, electricity access, and transport infrastructure collected by the PBS easily verifiable by the general public? This aspect explores the transparency and accessibility of data for common verification, assessing whether laypersons can without substantial difficulty, confirm the authenticity and accuracy of reported statistics.

In today's era, tools and technologies such as Google Maps have become instrumental in amassing verifiable data for a nation's social and economic spheres. These innovations provide a diverse array of techniques to collect, analyze, and deploy data for strategic planning and development initiatives. Below, we explore how these technologies are utilized, alongside the various approaches adopted by nations to compile a repository of dependable data:

Geospatial analysis: Google Maps and other GIS (Geographic Information Systems) technologies enable the collection and analysis of data based on geographical or spatial locations. This information is crucial for urban planning, environmental monitoring, and resource management.

Traffic and transportation planning: real-time traffic data from Google Maps helps in analyzing traffic patterns, congestion points, and the effectiveness of public transport systems. This data assists in improving road networks and planning new public transportation routes.

Disaster management and response: satellite imagery and mapping tools help in assessing areas affected by natural disasters, enabling efficient allocation of resources for relief and rehabilitation.

Economic development: by analyzing location data, governments can identify areas of economic activity, track changes over time, and plan for economic zones, industrial areas, and commercial development.

Public health: mapping tools are used to track disease outbreaks, plan healthcare facilities, and ensure equitable access to healthcare services across different regions.

Open Data Initiative: many countries have launched open data platforms where they publish datasets related to demographics, economy, healthcare, and education. These platforms encourage transparency and allow researchers, policymakers, and the public to access and utilize data.

Partnerships with tech companies: governments collaborate with tech companies to leverage their technologies for data collection and analysis. For example, partnerships with mobile network operators can provide insights into population movements and densities.

Remote sensing and satellite imagery: countries use satellite imagery for land use mapping, environmental monitoring, and urban planning. This method provides comprehensive and up-to-date data over large areas.

Citizen science and crowdsourcing: engaging the public to contribute data through apps and online platforms. This method is often used for environmental monitoring, reporting public issues (eg, potholes, broken streetlights), and participatory urban planning.

Blockchain for data verifiability: some countries are exploring blockchain technology to maintain secure and tamper-proof records of land ownership, business registrations, and educational qualifications. This ensures data integrity and trustworthiness.

Estonia's e-Government: Estonia has digitized 99 per cent of its public services, making it one of the most advanced digital societies in the world. Its digital ID card system enables citizens to access a wide array of services securely and efficiently. Pakistan can learn from Estonia's integration of technology into everyday governance, particularly in creating a unified database for all citizens and sectors.

Singapore's Smart Nation Initiative: Singapore's approach to using technology for societal improvement is another exemplary model. Through the Smart Nation platform, the government collects and analyzes data to improve urban living, healthcare, and transportation. Pakistan could adopt similar strategies, focusing on urban areas where the population density and service requirements are higher.

India's Aadhaar Project: India's biometric ID system, Aadhaar, covers over a billion people. It serves as a proof of identity and address, facilitating access to government services and financial inclusion. While the project has faced criticism regarding privacy concerns, its scale and scope offer valuable lessons in creating a digital identity system that could help in mapping and managing population data in Pakistan.

The journey towards digital transformation and effective data management in Pakistan is laden with obstacles. However, the most significant of these challenges does not stem from a lack of resources but from a more profound issue: a lack of visionary leadership.

Our leaders lack even a basic understanding of the rapidly evolving global landscape, especially in the realm of generative artificial intelligence (AI). Since November 30, 2022, we have entered a new era dominated by generative AI, a technological advancement that is creating unprecedented opportunities. This lack of insight among our leadership is one of the most significant barriers to crafting strategies that enable learning and ensuring data and information are transparent, verifiable, and accessible to the general public for independent verification.

This gap in understanding and vision hinders the potential for Pakistan to fully embrace and leverage the benefits of the digital age, particularly in harnessing the capabilities of generative AI to drive innovation, enhance public services, and promote inclusivity in access to information.

The writer is an advocate of the high court and a former civil servant.