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Are we using data to its full potential here?

  • Published at 09:25 am October 19th, 2017
  • Last updated at 10:16 am October 19th, 2017
Are we using data to its full potential here?
If you want a textbook definition of statistics then it can be explained as a set of mathematical equations that are used to analyse what is happening in the world around us. When used correctly, statistics tell us any trends in what happened in the past and can be useful in predicting what may happen in the future. But that is just a definition which has been there for several centuries. In 2017, if you want to truly understand the definition of statistics, then it can be said in simpler words: it’s basically the fuel that has transported us into the era of technology from the era of industrial revolution. Statistics is changing our world. Our choices as individuals are increasingly informed by more and more complex sources of data. Businesses are making decisions drawing on diverse and sophisticated information systems. Governments are also making laws and reforming public services with an ever widening evidence base at their disposal.

The use of statistics in Bangladesh

Like most other sovereign governments across the world, the Bangladesh government has a centralised official statistical system named Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS). The BBS is under the jurisdiction of Planning Ministry here. In August 1974, BBS was created by merging four relatively larger statistical agencies of the erstwhile provincial and central governments, namely, the Bureau of Statistics, the Bureau of Agriculture Statistics, the Agriculture Census Commission and the Population Census Commission. The BBS now has a total of six wings – Census Wing, Agriculture Wing, Demography and Health Wing, Industry and Labour Wing, National Accounting Wing and Computer Wing. Each of these wings is being headed by a Director. There are eight Divisional Statistical Offices, 64 District Statistical Offices located in eight Divisions and 64 Districts and 489 Upazilla/Thana offices in Bangladesh. About the works of the BBS, Md Amir Hossain, Director General (DG) of BBS said the works they do are sort of ‘behind the scene’ which don’t get much publicity. “We work with all sorts of data. The Statistical Act 2013 has mandated BBS as the sole agency for generating official statistics in Bangladesh.” Amir Hossain said as Bangladesh is gradually moving towards becoming a middle income nation, statistics is considered as the ‘only’ tool for evidence based policy making and proper program monitoring to ensure the optimum use of public resources. “We usually run several projects at a time,” Hossain said, “At this moment we are running a total of 11 projects.” The largest ongoing project of BBS is the ‘National Household Database’ project. Under this project, the government has set a target of collecting data from 3.5 crore households of the country for preparing NHD to identify economic status of the people aiming to eliminate poverty. This has started in 2013 and has a tentative project completion date of December 2017. Under this project, the BBS is preparing the database of household information up to Thana level of the country. The BBS also conducts several programs with stakeholders. In July this year, the BBS and WaterAid Bangladesh jointly started a yearlong program to conduct a survey to find out current status of household toilet facilities, water sources, food and environmental hygiene. “BBS has lots of responsibilities and activities,” he said, “However there is still a lot to do before we can feel that we are, as an organisation, at ease in a data-rich world.” Admitting some of the shortcomings of BBS, Hossain said the centralised statistical bodies of the developed countries are taking statistical analysis to the next level. “Many statistical organisations have started working with things like ‘big data’ now. In BBS we want to work with big data in near future too.”

The 'big data' revolution

Statistician Mahbubur Rahman who now works with Bangladesh Institute of Bank Management (BIBM) said the vast amount of data generated daily across society is widely touted as a game-changer for research, technological innovation, and even policy making. He said the problem here in Bangladesh – even though we take ‘big data’ as a buzzword and talk about it in different IT seminars and symposiums – is that we barely understand its actual meaning and its significance. Big Data refers to the ever-growing amount of information we are creating and storing, and the analysis and use of this data. In business sense, it particularly refers to applying insights gleaned from this analysis in order to drive business growth. “The analysis of the potentiality of big data is still a far cry here.” In explaining the above, he said, commercial banks which practically sit on large amounts of customer data are yet to devise a method in using this data meaningfully to give their customers a better banking experience. Several supershops are also failing to use the huge amount of data they receive from customer’s purchase. With the provision of membership cards, these supershops now can store information about their customer’s purchase habit in individual matrix. Yet they cannot capitalise on this data in generating more business, he explained. “This is because, merely collecting and warehousing a mountain of data isn't enough. To gain a competitive advantage, these entities in Bangladesh must try using their data to determine business patterns. The ultimate goal is for companies to build a predictive model that's personalised and can detect customer’s purchase habit.”  
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