13 August 2015

Nigeria: Data Mining Is the Easiest Way to Fight Corruption

interview

Dr Mohammed Tumala, is the National President of the Nigeria Statistical Association, NSA. He speaks on what the country stands to benefit by professionalising statistics practice in the country.

What would you say the country has lost by relegating statistics to the background?

You cannot measure and monitor national development without statistics. You cannot get the right mix of policies that will work if statistics is not used in planning. For coming to realise at this hour, when nations have moved far ahead of Nigeria, that we need statistics, the country has lost an important ingredient in human activity-time.

Unfortunately, it is not only time that we lost, knowledge and technology moved far beyond our comprehension, our people are poor and our society is not cohesive. It has really left us at the bottom of human development.

What is your assessment of the performance of National Bureau of Statistics and how can that be improved upon?

To some extent, the NBS has transformed the Nigerian statistics environment. For instance, national output is now produced on quarterly basis. Prices are available on monthly basis, and many more other macroeconomic variables. These are now released electronically to all users impartially.

It is complying with international standards in the production of data. However, government seemed to be gradually withdrawing its support for the new agency in terms of financing. Governance responsibilities were also assigned to persons without technical capacity in data production, while routine surveys necessary for data production remained unfunded.

At the helm of affairs and the clearing house of the Nigerian statistical system is the governing board of the NBS. Government needs to appoint technically competent persons on the board to manage technical responsibilities. Government needs to understand the processes of the NBS and fund data production as a capital project or as an investment.

Recently, the CISON Bill was passed by the National Assembly. Could you say how your association was able to get this through after many years of advocacy?

The time has come for statistics to have its way. There is the growing demand for data in the country. The National Assembly has realised that its functions become very effective when statistics is available.

Quality statistics can only be produced by professional statisticians who are guided by documented code/ethics of practice and adore their profession. Indeed, many of the members of the National Assembly we interacted with wish to see the statistics profession practised like the accounting profession in the public service where the statistician-general recruits, trains and posts statisticians to all ministries, under a unified condition of service.

That will be the next step we shall take as soon as Mr. President assents to the CISON Bill. For now, we have been challenged to produce quality data for Nigeria.

When your body is legally recognised as a professional body, what would this portend for national capacity building for Nigeria's statistical system?

Presently, those who wish to practise as statisticians can either go through one of our educational institutions or attend the NBS statistics school with campuses in three locations. And, in almost all MDAs, we have people who found themselves posted to PRS departments and are not statisticians by training. CISON will provide training opportunities for non-statisticians and retraining for statisticians for enhanced professional practice.

This will go a long way in complementing government training programmes. CISON will also provide avenues for knowledge sharing and professional interaction that would bring about professional bonding. This has the potential of growing public confidence in the statistics being produced, and its use.

In most professional bodies, examinations are conducted to admit new members while old ones are elevated to Fellows or other positions in recognition of their contributions to the development of their bodies. Is NSA likely to adopt this approach?

That is the appropriate way to go and we shall adopt it. What makes the statistics profession different is the need for close monitoring of practice. The data we produce and publish are aggregates of numbers collected on individuals, firms, government agencies, etc. High professional ethics and compliance establishes trust and confidence in those who provide the numbers. If such trust is not there, they give you wrong numbers and you have no way of knowing. If the numbers are wrong, aggregates will be wrong and consequent policies inappropriate. In addition to examinations, CISON will also monitor non-disclosure and sincerity in data collection.

Analysts believe that the time for Nigeria to prioritise statistical data development for growth is now when revenue is dropping. How do you react to this?

The dimensions of human behavior are becoming more complex by the day. Populations have become mobile. Economies are becoming service driven and dependent on IT and global information. No economy can, therefore, be ,insulated from vulnerabilities from global markets developments.

The way to go is for policy makers to understand all sources, detect early emerging vulnerabilities and take counter cyclical actions. Statistics is possibly the only scientific way of understanding sources and timing of shocks to economic growth. I think the present government has taken the right step in its consultation with the national planning commission and we hope that this is sustained.

What roles do you think your association could play in improving the nation's fiscal efficiency through plugging channels of leakages in public finance?

Statistics plays a leading role in public or national finance. Economic theory anticipates leakages in the circular flow of money, either within the domestic economy or between domestic and other jurisdictions.

It is statistics that provides an idea on the size and direction of leakages. When government's spending is high and human development measures are deteriorating, that statistics indicate leakage. When the country's exports are consistently higher than its imports and its external reserves deplete, that also indicate leakage. We know that the easiest way to fight financial corruption is through data mining.

As a country, we have invested in infrastructure that are currently producing huge volumes of data like the BVN registers, national ID, driving licenses, international passport, bank transactions, phone calls, social media usage, etc. Organisations like the DSS and EFCC should develop their capacities to use information from these sources and take proactive steps to curb financial corruption. Financial corruption can be reduced by mining banking data alone.

Most countries have gone beyond data mining and have migrated to the so-called "big data," which is data large in quantity and diversity, and high in frequency of availability to understand human behaviour.

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