Unit punches 'way out' of its league

27 November 2009 | Story by Newsroom

Lynn Woolfrey & Pali LehohlData coup: Lynn Woolfrey, data manager of DataFirst, receives the Statistics SA award from Pali Lehohla, the Statistician-General.

DataFirst, the "very small" survey data archive and training facility in the Faculty of Commerce, was honoured by Statistics SA with an award in the Data Dissemination category on 23 November.

Statistics SA and DataFirst are involved in a US$370 000 project to support the accurate use of national statistics. Their work, the Data Quality Project, is funded by the Andrew W Mellon Foundation. It aims to support the quality and usability of Stats SA datasets for local researchers, especially those involved in measuring poverty, inequality and unemployment; and to build capacity in assessing data quality.

Acting Dean of Commerce, Professor John Simpson, said: "We are so proud of DataFirst, as it is a very small research unit that punches way out of its league. Achieving recognition from Stats SA shows that we are making a significant difference to evidence-based policymaking, both in South Africa and across the continent."

DataFirst director, Matthew Welch, said: "Accurate data is necessary for drawing up and implementing effective government policy. Maintaining up-to-date, accurate information is also the only way a country can measure its progress in economic and social development. DataFirst keeps up to date with the best research in this field internationally. Through this project, this expertise is made available to foster the work of Stats SA for nation building."

DataFirst does similar work outside South Africa on a project of the International Household Survey Network's Accelerated Data Program (ADP), sponsored by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

DataFirst installs data management tools and trains staff at national statistics offices in African countries. So far, the DataFirst team has undertaken ADP work in Ethiopia, Gambia, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia.

The aim is to help national statistics offices to archive and disseminate their own survey microdata. Previously such data has been archived off the continent, for instance at the World Bank. Another part of the training is to help statistics offices produce high-quality, standardised metadata - documentation that makes the data easier to use. This allows information from one African country to be more easily compared to similar data from other countries.

"A standard format for data is critical for research," said Welch. "There's still plenty of work to do in this area, but the government agencies we've worked with have been keen to receive all the training they can get.

The technical obstacles are huge across Africa. Every country has skills shortages, and some governments are only beginning to recognise the need for sharing information. Putting the technology in place is the first step towards getting African governments into the information age."

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