Friday, 8 May 2009

A Statistical Discontentment

Hans Rosling is a really respectable statistician who has been through stuff before he talks. And I've never seen a data analysis so excitingly and elegantly presented as this, especially with the urgency that is symbolic of the need for those who can do something about world poverty to do it already.

This is not to say that every developed country should stick its nose into the business of LDCs, because I don't think anyone is in a position to say that poor people need our help. But in empowering people ranging from students to social helpers and policy makers to entrepreneurs who can provide innovative services and solutions, the poor can gain opportunities to improve their lives as they deem fit. I do believe that there are some things that are universally desired, such as the ability to live longer and experience less suffering, and there are economic improvements that can eradicate the factors that shut masses of people out from being able to lead less agonized lives characterized by a lack of resources such as food and water.

Hans Rosling demonstrates in his presentation that a major problem exists when we often lump people together into countries, regions and whole continents. With access to good data, which actually does exist, people who have the means to cater to individual groups even within small states can do what it takes to provide proper and better targeted aid such as HIV diagnostic and prevention measures. For example, this is highlighted when the social classes of Niger and South Africa are compared (2003 statistics). The bottom 20% of Niger's population rank among the lowest in terms of child survival (75.6%) and GDP per capita in the world ($102 GDP per capita), and the richest 20% of South Africa have a 97.5% child survival rate and fare almost equally with the richest in the world with $30400 per capita GDP. And yet people are constantly guilty of saying that Africans need help. But it is hard for most of us to comprehend or come to know of this because of the lack of open data available.

As Hans Rosling states, "we find that students get very excited when they can use this, and even more policy makers and the corporate sectors would like to see how the world is changing. Now, why doesn't this take place? Why are we not using the data we have? We have data in the United Nations, in the national statistical agencies and in universities and other non-governmental organizations. Because the data is hidden down in the databases. And the public is there, and the Internet is there, but we have still not used it effectively. All that information we saw changing in the world does not include publicly-funded statistics. There are some web pages like this, you know, but they take some nourishment down from the databases, but people put prices on them, stupid passwords and boring statistics."

Tell me about it. I've scoured the internet for information at times when doing term papers and assignments only to find a horde of knowledge tucked neatly into little packages with price tags on them.

Sure, when I publish a journal, I would definitely like to be credited for it. I wouldn't be someone who pursues business profits, but I'd still like a salary because I need to eat, and I do expect a certain degree of remuneration for the prestige I hold that has been grounded upon years of intellectual rigour, dedication and perfecting knowledge in a certain field of expertise, and because nothing would suck more than to study, do research and spend years mentally debating over issues of the world for the intellectual betterment of mankind and not get paid for it.

Because one can't say for sure how an academic should be paid, and who should do the paying, it is left to the free market system which dictates that I get paid by users of my work. That means no more open sharing of knowledge, because no one wants to be responsible for the education of the world. The utility of one's work is directly linked to the combined utility of those who desire it, transacted by money. And because, more disgustingly, some people see a market opportunity and profits in being middle men and agents for the dissemination of information.

I respect that scholars and academics desire credit and recognition for their work. But because of some reason that money is now the only practical means for acknowledgement, much of the world's intellectual journals, scholarly writings, statistics, data and wisdom are now largely inaccessible to the most convenient means of access - the internet - which is a huge pity. I suppose there are probably scholars and academics who are also guilty of being only motivated by money when they work, but I believe the system churns out certain types of people (coupled with the decline of philosophy in the 19th century and its collapse in the 20th century as the world moved towards capitalistic and economic practicality). Whatever it is, it doesn't change the fact of the matter that we have a glorious opportunity to be wiser from the exposure to such knowledge, but the knowledge is just not publicly available.

It would really be good to one day see greater information sharing and access so as to reduce uncertainty and ignorance especially with regards to dire decisions to be made and preconceived notions of the world.

Audio Candy:
Sting - Shape Of My Heart

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