Is NZ’s lack of data a risk for informed decision-making?

By Nikki Wright

Say I have important managerial decisions to make that affect my company’s sustainability decisions, and to make those decisions, I need quality statistics about what New Zealanders are up to. I’m not sure I can go to the Census 2018, which didn’t produce great results, nor can I consult data from the previous Census (hampered by the 2011 Christchurch earthquakes).

How, then, do NZ businesses make informed decisions with such an old data set? And what if the data you’ve got to inform your decision-making is found wanting?

I keep hearing leaders telling us we need strategic thinking to enable us to cope in a new world of data driven decision making – but our data is insufficient.

In 2019, I attended the Sustainable Development Goals Summit in Auckland and heard Rt Hon. Helen Clark’s perspective. During the panel discussion she criticised NZ’s current data sets and pointed out that our strategies and policy approaches are currently inconsistent with what is needed to make progress on the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Furthermore, at the launch of the 2020 report of the UN Secretary-General’s Independent Accountability Panel (IAP) for Every Woman Every Child (a side event during the UN review of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development), Helen Clark said high-quality data “Must play a vital role in identifying where there is a need for course correction.”

"Data acts like a spotlight,” Ms Clark said. “It identifies what change needs to happen and it reveals where injustice is the most profound."

The UN backs this up. As articulated in its whitepaper on Big Data for Sustainable development, “New sources of data - such as satellite data - new technologies, and new analytical approaches, if applied responsibly, can enable more agile, efficient and evidence-based decision-making and can better measure progress on the Sustainable Development Goals in a way that is both inclusive and fair.”

All organisations should care about having the public support their decisions, which is why the Holmes Report ‘Data Having Greater Influence On Public Decision-Making’ is so crucial. This report found “Data is the new influence and its power over the public is growing.”

The availability of increasingly large amounts of data is having a growing influence over how the public makes decisions. The public wants data to help them make choices, for everything from what news source they should trust, to where they should live, and for whom they should vote.

The Aotearoa Circle agrees. In early November I attended the Sustainable Finance Forum where the Roadmap for Action Final Report was released. At the launch, Karen Silk of Westpac told the Circle that banks are struggling with lack of data.

The consequences of that? Sub-par information about risks, such as threats to coastal property.

The Roadmap report found that financial decision-making required data about environmental and social impact to be at its heart – but that data isn’t always there.

“There is an urgent need to get environmental and social data (of which government is but one source) flowing more freely to the financial sector,” the report points out, “Incorporating this data into existing and new frameworks that enable more informed decision-making around risks and impacts.”

Lack of data on climate risk management is “vast,” the report tells us, and any existing data appears siloed, with lack of clarity about where it sits, low interoperability and a lack of understanding about the value of sharing data.

A central repository would be more helpful to everyone, in the interests of sustainable financial, economic and government systems.

“To be effective,” the report goes on, “data and information needs to be flowing at scale from assets, places, scientists, ministries, statisticians, to corporates, investors, banks, insurers, and other non-traditional consumers of such data.”

I’d like to draw your attention, lastly, to ideas published in Devex by Natalie Dawe and Macon Phillips in which the pair venture seven ways to manage and strengthen data-driven decision-making. The pair published their ideas after working on a project in the state of Bihar, India (population 110 million) where 70 percent of households’ health out-of-pocket expenditure was incurred on medication. CARE India and IBM Health Corps partnered with the government to build data systems and use data visualization to help enable decision-makers to more accurately forecast drug consumption and adjust procurement accordingly, thus decreasing stockouts, waste, and out of pocket costs for patients.

Essential in gathering the right data to make decisions were the following:

  1. Start with the right questions 
  2. Avoid disruption of current data systems
  3. Establish a common data dictionary to improve data completeness and quality.
  4. Don’t always capture big data if it doesn’t enable granularity
  5. When it comes to data visualization, don’t just show data, provide context
  6. Data dashboards are only as valuable as the actions they provoke.
  7. Identify the easy-to-fill data gaps

“The journey to becoming a data-driven community need not start with expensive technologies,” Dawe and Phillips concluded. “These relatively simple steps can be adopted by nearly any organization heeding the call for data.”

I very much agree – so let’s gather that data urgently, because sustainability needs work today.

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