Not Numbers, but Numbers Which Matter


By Zahid Asghar

We are living in a world where data are ubiquitous. It is estimated that by 2020 there will be 1.75GB data generated for each individual living in this world in every minute. Companies/organizations which have explored the potential of data are ruling the world. Facebook, Google, Amazon, IBM etc have huge market share as these have been very successful in utilizing data at its best.

Facebook’s alone market value is over 450 billion US dollars, more than Pakistan’s total GDP. Data is new oil but data pose serious challenges particularly in developing countries where data literacy is not very high. We are misled by numbers as we try to link everything to numbers. We ignore its not numbers but numbers which matter.

Getting data insight by simply using statistics without deeply exploring the phenomenon is normally misleading. This holds true from government to the game of cricket.

Pakistan has won ICC Champion Trophy 2017 and has beaten comprehensively both England and India in the semi-final and final matches, respectively. Hasan Ali’s 3 wickets in semi-final and any other bowler’s 3 wickets or Hasan Ali 3-wickets in some other match are equal. So, result one will draw from this statistics that both bowlers or same bowler performance in both matches is the same. But this is not true when one explores the issue in detail. Hasan Ali’s 3-wickets in semi-final includes all in-form top English batsmen while the other bowler might have 3-wickets of tail-enders only. Same is true for final match when Amir gets 3 top Indian Batsman out and gets 3-wickets in his record. Those who have watched the match will not think Amir performance in numbers but in numbers which matter. This list goes on. A century in home ground against a weak team is counted the same as century away from home country against a strong team.

Getting data insight requires the task to explore the issue in detail instead of simply looking at numbers. For this we must enhance data literacy at all levels of the society among journalists, academia and bureaucracy.

When we try to measure or link everything to numbers, data becomes a double edge sword. On one hand numbers are highly necessary to get insight about the issue but at the same time, we have incentives to increase the number without taking hard path. Government increases its tax-revenue by simply increasing tax-rate on a sector which is already documented and easy to cap. For example, banking transactions, cell phones and other such services are easy to tax and government can show increase in tax collection without bringing undocumented economy into the tax-net.  This will show an increase in tax-revenue without taking hard reforms and no effort will be made to bring new sectors into tax-net.

Same is the case when we measure progress in research in terms of research papers produced in the universities. HEC is showing its performance by telling policy makers that research papers produced overtime have increased manifold.

In order to get more funding and to improve ranking, universities are putting pressure on their faculty to increase research papers even if it is at the cost of quality of teaching.

Since ranking, recognition of individuals and different awards are linked with simple numbers, therefore, many faculty members are trying to publish in journals which have high impact factor by paying hefty amount as submission fees in dollars. They get personal promotions and other benefits at the cost of producing quality graduates. A research paper on exploring national issue of great importance may remain a working paper but has great significance while an impact factor paper in a journal based on technical analysis (many a times after paying around $1000) is a paper for the sake of publication.

Former will be given zero weightage, while latter will get all the benefits in terms of promotion and other monetary gains.

Getting data insight requires the task to explore the issue in detail instead of simply looking at numbers. For this we must enhance data literacy at all levels of the society among journalists, academia and bureaucracy. Without evidence based policy analysis, we may misallocate our limited resources and it will be difficult to have development where no one is left behind.

Zahid Asghar is a faculty member at Quaid-i-Azam University (QAU), Islamabad, Pakistan.


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