Irrigating the Data Desert

“Why speculate when you can calculate?” – John Baez, American mathematical physicist

Last week saw the release of Common Weal’s latest policy paper, Scotland’s Data Desert, which examined the gaps in statistical data for Scotland and called for a Scottish Statistics Agency to help fill them.

We weren’t the only ones studying the problem of the dearth of data in Scotland. As part of a year-long program of research into this topic, we got involved with the Scottish Parliament’s Economy, Jobs and Fair Work Committee who had launched their own public consultation looking specifically at the state of economic data in Scotland.

Our response to that consultation led to us being invited to present evidence directly to the committee in September 2017.

The final report from the committee’s investigations was published a few days ago and we are very pleased to say that many of our recomendations have been accepted in the conclusions of the report.

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Finding the Gaps

One of the enduring frustrations for researchers like ourselves has been to try to ask a question about Scotland and then to find that the particular data required to answer it either couldn’t be accessed (sometimes for good reasons like data protection, sometimes for less good reasons like the department in question not releasing the data or making it almost impossible to find or use) or simply didn’t exist at all. One of our recomendations was to actively survey the full extent of data provision in Scotland and to survey the extent of data requirements in Scotland and then to try to match supply and demand. This has been accepted by the committee and they have recomended that a discussions should be had with the ONS, HMRC and other data agencies to try to explore this.

Filling the Gaps

Many of the data gaps we noted in our policy paper and in our evidence were picked up and were often amplified by other witnesses. We discussed some of the technical issues which could allow further improvement to existing publications such as GERS as well as far more fundamental problems such as the severe lack of data on trade in Scotland, particularly with regard to trade with the rest of the UK and with imports to Scotland in general.

The lack of the ability of Scottish statisticians to legally compel businesses to respond to surveys was picked up as a problem (the response rate for the surveys which comprise the Scottish export statistics is regularly below 30%). We’re pleased to note that the committee agrees that granting the statutory powers to legally compel responses would be to Scotland’s advantage. However, we’re even more pleased to see recognition that surveys should be phased out in favour of direct use of administrative data where-ever possible. After all, why ask people to commission surveys of, for example, income distribution in Scotland when you could just scrape the data that HMRC already hold on income tax and use that instead. It’ll be a far richer source of data, it’ll automatically cover remote rural areas that are hard to reach with surveys and it’ll be easier to break down to examine sub-samples like local authorities or individual council wards.

Verifying Data

When governments get lax with data provision or if data provision is limited then there is a risk that policy-makers and lobbyists can start to grasp for whatever data they can get hold of rather than use the most rigourous sources. Whilst limited data is in most cases better than no data, there is the chance that bad data could be used in lieu of good data and this would lead to mishapen policy and poor outcomes. One of our suggestions was to expand the UK’s data “kitemark” system to give non-governmental data agencies like think-tanks, universities and the like a chance to have their data ratified against the official Code of Practice. Those studies which passed would then be marked as being worthy of consideration by policy-makers. The committee report goes a long way towards this by recomending that all third-party producers of data specify to what extend they conform to the Code of Practice and, if they fall short, to explain why they do and if and how they propose to redress this. This will be a challenge for a lot of think-tanks and other researchers but it is one worth taking on as it will go a long way towards improving Scottish data provision. It is certainly something that I shall be keeping in mind in the future.

A Scottish Statistics Agency

The key goal of our paper was to advocate the creation of a dedicated Scottish Statistics Agency and whilst the committee report falls a little short of this goal it does make a major step towards it. They have requested that the Scottish Government commission a feasibility study which would consider the costs involved with expanding data provision under three models comprising of 1) A dedicated Statistics Agency, 2) an expansion of existing data departments like the ONS, or 3) a review of the role of the Scottish Chief Statistician.

This is a pragmatic move and whilst our opinion would clearly cleave towards option 1) it will be very interesting to see how the various options stack up against each other. I, in particular, would hope that the Scottish Government pays heed to this request and commissions the study at the earliest opportunity.

Presenting Data

Of course, it makes little sense if data provision in Scotland is radically expanded but if it still cannot be properly accessed and utilised. There is a prevalent problem of government departments siloing and compartmentalising data which limits the extent to which datasets can be cross-referenced. Even when they can, it can often be the case that different methodologies have been used or the data cover different geographic areas or different spans of time or otherwise cannot be combined. Apples can sometimes be compared to oranges, but you have to be very careful how you do it.

The committee recognised all of these points and has suggested measures to address them. In particular, it has picked up our call for all government data to be made accessible via a single data portal or website – in a manner similar to the way the EU handles data through Eurostat. Better measures to co-ordinate and share data will also be welcome and valuable.

The committee made a highlight of my comments that data is being presented simultaneously to several audiences and must speak effectively to all of them. Researchers will likely want access to the deepest layers of data and to be able to manipulate it freely, policy-makers may want enough to provide the evidence they need for their policy whereas the lay-public may simply want to be satisfied that the policies are being made on the basis of sound fact and to be able to easily digest the headline figures. The data but be able to be consumed by all of these audiences and so I’m pleased that the committee has requested that the Government considers how this can be acheived and, in particular, how it can champion awareness and understanding of data and statistics with policy-makers, journalists and the public.


The process of investigating Scotland’s Data Desert was one born initially of our frustration at being unable to get hold of the data we, as a think-tank, needed. It grew into a project which looked towards Scottish independence and the obvious needs that an independent state would have with regard to data but it truly flourished with the realisation that there is a lot that could be done now in Scotland and that access to good, comprehensive data is a matter which should be so obvious that it could be universally accepted regardless of the constitutional positions held by political parties and, indeed, regardless of their positions on any policy.

It quickly became apparent that we were not alone in our desire to improve the data landscape of the country and that others have been coming up against the same problems that we have – and have often offered very similar solutions.

It is now my hope that the Scottish Government reflects seriously on the points raised in this report and in the evidence presented by all those who took part in the commissioning of it. We live in a data rich world, there is no longer any reason not to embrace that fact in our approaches to creating and monitoring government policies.

A version of this blog article also appeared on the CommonSpace website.

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One thought on “Irrigating the Data Desert

  1. Excellent points which are essentially unarguable. With unionist parties complaining constantly that the SNP Govt should use non existent levers to boost the economy surely they will support this. Ever since Devolution this need for Scottish specific and relevant datasets has been obvious for good governance.

    Consultations are a good thing and Scotgov is quite good at doing them. But they are partial snapshots, anecdotes, not data. As a scientist I am naturally in favour of good data but this goes further. More power to your elbow.


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