OECD STATISTICS DAY 2018: “The Role of Official Statistics in an Evolving World”


Opening Remarks by Angel Gurría

OECD Secretary-General

OECD Boulogne, Paris - 6 April 2018

(As prepared for delivery)





Ladies and Gentlemen, dear Friends,

Welcome to OECD Statistics Day, our bi-annual celebration of statistics as the backbone of our evidence base. Today we celebrate the effort and contribution of all our statisticians, not just in SDD but across the house.


This year’s focus is on the Role of Official Statistics in an Evolving World. Statistics do not only hold up a mirror to the world, they also actively shape it. Statistics and data open people’s eyes and minds; they inform policymakers’ decision and they influence the demands and the views of citizens.


In the aftermath of the UK Brexit referendum, Paul Johnson, the head of the UK’s Institute for Fiscal Studies blamed the result (in part) on the use of statistics, referring to a “statistical fog” of unclear and even untrue numbers which misled voters. He said “Numbers disrupt the course of political history – that’s real power”. I find this example very revealing. Statistics and the quality of statistics have become essential for decisions in the rapidly changing world.


Statistics and data in a changing world

At the OECD, we have long been responsible and rigorous guardians of the highest quality data. Just as a picture can be worth more than a thousand words, a number can distil a thousand challenges.


To give a few examples, on the environment, the OECD recently showed how the Earth is losing its living diversity at an alarming rate – one tenth of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity and one third of freshwater biodiversity has been wiped out since 1970. In the area of inclusiveness and inequality, OECD How’s Life found that more than 1 in 3 people would fall into poverty if they had to forgo 3 months of their income and that 21% of women in OECD countries are in low-paid jobs compared to 13% of men. On digitalisation, the OECD Science, Technology and Industry Scoreboard 2017 is showing for the first time how much China is leading on infrastructure for the Internet of Things, accounting for over 40% of worldwide machine-to-machine communication (M2M) sim card subscriptions, three times the share of the United States.


The OECD is also moving into new areas, finding new indicators and measurements on complex, multi-faceted issues like trust. Last year the OECD released OECD Guidelines for Measuring Trust, and we are also leveraging innovative techniques to measure and track corruption with tools like the ‘Trustlab’.


As an evidence-based Organisation, we are currently witnessing an explosion of information, with a multitude of new data sources, from social media to satellites, mobile phones, apps and household appliances. These new sources of data complement, and sometimes compete, with official data sources. But mainly they open up and create new insights.


The OECD is responding to emerging challenges

The exhibition stands we see here today show that the OECD is embracing these new opportunities, while preserving the quality and independence of our data.


All the projects represented here, from CTP, ENV, the IEA, PAC, SDD and STI draw on new sources of information, such as the use of geospatial data, data from web-scraping, and micro-level information on firms from private sources. They all present their information in intuitive and original ways. This fits squarely with the NAEC spirit, the OECD’s internal Digital Strategy and our horizontal ‘Going Digital’ project.


These new initiatives and approaches reflect a broader movement in the OECD to adapt to emerging challenges, both of a technological nature and a political and geo-political nature. Our global interconnectedness is growing in intensity and complexity, but multilateralism is also being increasingly contested by an array of actors. The OECD will be addressing this at our Ministerial Council Meeting in May on ‘Refounding multilateralism for more responsible, effective and inclusive outcomes’.


Our renamed Statistics and Data Directorate (SDD) is playing its part in this effort, breaking the traditional mould. It is looking at new sources and flows of data and helping to address these challenges. The creation within SDD of a new Smart Data Solutions and Practices Division will provide corporate support for smart data initiatives as well as established statistical work; it will animate user communities; and help develop common understanding and tools around legal, ethical and quality standards.


This is all the more important when you remember that the quality and reach of our data is directly correlated to the trust that the public and policymakers will place in us. We need to reflect on how an evidence-based institution can survive in a “post-truth” world of “fake news”.


Of course, we must bring the power of our evidence, our research and our data to centre stage. But it’s not just about defending facts. We also have to evolve.


Delivering data quality, privacy and security in an evolving world

Our role has to change; we have to do more. We have a responsibility to define good practices, to promote legal and ethical standards so that privacy is protected, confidentiality is preserved and statistical quality is held up.


Firstly, this means disseminating quality data through the web, social media, apps and online platforms, as well as traditional channels. We have to make our data more visually appealing to the public by improving tools like the Data Portal and we have to find our trusted space among many competing actors. Our number crunchers and our communication gurus have to work in tandem, which is why I am delighted to see that PAC are well represented here.


Secondly, beyond communicating better our own statistics we must also increase our efforts to shape the multilateral agenda, where digitalisation, including managing data flows, are top collective priorities. More than ever we need quality, reliable and up to date statistics to properly inform governments and citizens on policy decisions, including on the multilateral agenda.


Data goes to the heart of multilateralism because it binds us all, it circulates indiscriminately over borders and it helps us build trust and consensus. It is a constantly flowing, constantly growing and constantly evolving map of our interconnected world but it is also the evidence, the testimony, of our interdependence. It allows us to measure progress towards multilateral targets like the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement.  


However, it also raises thorny questions like the attribution of responsibility and liability for data-driven decisions, the transparency of algorithms versus the preservation of intellectual property rights, personal privacy and customer protection. We have to address this in a co-ordinated and collective way at the multilateral level, which is why the OECD is applying standards like the 2013 OECD Guidelines Governing the Protection of Privacy and Transborder Data Flows and initiatives like the new OECD Global Forum on Digital Security for Prosperity.


Ladies and Gentlemen,

Thank you for your stellar effort. You are helping the OECD stay ahead of the game in an evolving world and ensuring that our statistics do not lose ground or credibility in the face of new, competing sources. We cannot rest on our laurels. We have to be responsive, agile and humble. We have to embrace change as a source of better data for better policies and better lives. Thank you.




See also:

OECD work on Statistics



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