In the run up to World Statistics Day, I thought, well I like stats myself, but really, it’s hard to convey what’s emotional about them. Then I realised that some of the most charged moments of my working life have been triggered by a statistic.
Statistics cursed my first job. I spent three months of my life laboriously data-inputting a set of survey results into SPSS, then endured a month-long argument with my boss of the time because I was convinced that our results showed that the female professionals we were studying earned less than the men. He was absolutely sure that I was being ideological. He pulled rank and I muttered mutinously and impotently until the end of my contract. For the record, I was right.
After that I went to work for a family planning organisation, where rows raged about people who were considered ‘Malthusians’ (caricatured as neurotics terrified by the thought of large populations of people who weren’t likely to go to the same sort of school as them) rather than us activists who cared about women’s rights to plan their families.
Then there was the time I had a battle royal with a close friend who picked up a proposal for an HIV programme that I was writing. I was using a certain government’s HIV statistics, my friend had worked on HIV in the country under question, and he was absolutely convinced that the government data was wrong. I knew my proposal would not get funded unless I used the data. He said I was using data that I knew was a lie, and that made me a liar. I called him an idiot idealist. For the record, he was right.
I accepted that I was burnt out when the mortality and morbidity statistics I worked with every day had lost the ability to move me. I moved out of the sector for a while until I was ready to work with data about death again.
Now I’m back with a different set of questions. Why are donors mostly unwilling to help NGOs invest in their statistical capability? Why are there no incentives or requirements for NGOs and private sector providers to share their data with one another and with donors – not just through ad hoc and interactions but as a global strategy? Every NGO I have worked with has been desperate to deliver value for money so that we can deliver our promises. We work with statistics about sad facts and we are outraged by the stories those statistics tell. But generalities only help a bit, while better data would help us work in more targeted ways and ultimately save more lives. Data should not be seen as a luxury but as a driving force in the way we work.
(Btw, on a feminist angle the rehabilitation of Florence Nightingale from sentimental generally nice person to ‘passionate statistician’ health campaigner, look at: http://www.rss.org.uk/main.asp?group=&page=1321&event=1170&month=&year=&date