The future of statistics

The most important changes in our environment are related to the emergence of new data processing technologies, the changes that by all means affect statistics. The matter was discussed by participants in the Digital Agenda for Statistics conference, organized by Russia’s Federal Service for State Statistics (Rosstat), the Plekhanov Russian University of Economics and the Russian Association of Statisticians.

The changes are already happening: for instance, Russia will soon hold a digital census by collecting data directly via tablets. A similar census has recently taken place in Belarus.

The so-called Digital Analytics Platform (DAP) is supposed to be the most important project; it will change the work with statistical data. The system will automate and unify all activity of statistics agencies. Ideally, it will be a one-stop shop that will collect statistical data from all sources, an integrated storage for all input data and an automated system for its processing. Some RUR 541 mio ($8.4 mio) will be allocated for developing the platform, while half of this amount (RUR 240 mio) will go to the integrated storage of input data. An integrated ecosystem of data for all agencies will be built. The main contractors are Voskhod Research Center and the National Informatization Center. The platform will be launched by 2021.

Another area of work concerns Big Data, which in the long term may take some corporate reporting burden off companies as some forms of reporting may be replaced with data from alternative sources. However, Rosstat still does not have the slightest idea about how exactly Big Data will be used. For now, the service is just considering working with it. It is expected that in 2020, a concept will be developed for comprehensive application of Big Data in statistics but at the moment, even the tender for the contractors wishing to act as the developer is not yet finished. Meanwhile, Rosstat head Pavel Malkov expressed confidence that the Digital Analytical Platform will allow making a qualitative leap in reviewing mandatory forms of reporting for corporations.

One of the alternative sources that the statistics service can and must use is, of course, the huge amounts of data accumulated by other agencies – primarily, the Russian Pension Fund and the Federal Tax Service. Not everything is on track though. Pension Fund data are already provided to Rosstat and there is a roadmap for improving the data exchange between the Pension Fund and Rosstat. However, being an essential source of information about the economy, tax data is still not making it to the statistics, which is clearly an oversight. Nobody knows more about the Russian economy than tax authorities – still, apparently, the massive amounts of data at their disposal remain without due scientific processing. Cooperation between Rosstat and the Federal Tax Service is running smoothly – but only when it comes to exploring the tax service’s collection of data and its potential uses rather than sharing the data.

All these issues relate in one way or another to the project of creating a National Data Management System, with a corresponding bill aimed to consolidate the architecture of this system currently actively discussed by the autonomous non-profit organization Digital Economy. However, the text of the law fails to give an answer to the most interesting question as to what ministry will coordinate work with data nationwide.

Theoretically, the system should drastically change the image of the Russian state in terms of information exchange. Unified rules will be introduced for working with data that will be obligatory for all departments and the exchange of information will take place in accordance with unified standards; uniform rules will also be applied for providing access to information available at different government agencies; in a long run, special data sets will be created using the information available in the state for training AI systems.

And someone has to manage this entire sector. The Federal State Statistics Service would certainly expect a statistical service to be assigned to this coordinating role to follow the example of Canada, yet it appears that the Russian Government has enough of applicants for this status – primarily the Ministry of Digital Development, Communications and Mass Media, as well as the Federal Tax Service which also has an extensive experience of working with mega data.

Participants in the conference also discussed long-term prospects; if a person with a ‘digital footprint’ – in particular, his gadgets – can become a source of statistics, digitalization should make statistics more human-oriented. When this occurs, the census in its traditional sense may not be required anymore, with all population data to be sent to corresponding statistical registers online.

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