Department of Economic and Social Affairs

Statistics • COVID-19 response

Time to communicate and engage: Interview with Dr. Ola Awad, President of the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics


Jenna Slotin, from the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data, discusses with Dr. Awad how the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS) is coordinating national COVID-19 data collection, production and dissemination efforts while responding to the operational challenges of the pandemic. Dr. Awad underlines the importance of working with stakeholders within and outside government to set priorities and to ensure that the National Statistical Office is fully integrated into policy making.

Thank you and welcome, Dr. Awad, to this interview. My name is Jenna Slotin, from the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data. I'm very pleased to be conducting the interview today.

As we all know the COVID-19 pandemic has really turned everything upside down across all walks of life. It's also shown that we need timely and accurate data now more than ever in order to plan immediate response, as well as to be thinking through relief and recovery as we move forward. In the world of national statistics, regular statistical programs need to ensure operational continuity and meet the immediate data demands of policy makers. So, very quickly, as we began to contend with the pandemic, the United Nations Statistics Division, in partnership with the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data and Open Data Watch, launched a website to provide a space for the global statistical community to share guidance actions tools and best practices to ensure operational continuity to meet those immediate and urgent dated needs.

I'd like to start with a focus on the main challenges that your organization is facing in responding to COVID-19, and what has been the role of the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics in coordinating national COVID-19 data collection efforts.

I also want to thank you, and I want to thank also UNSD and the DFID project for the website. It was really very useful. Regarding your first question on the challenges, and how we actually operated: Yes, it was a crisis that all NSOs and all the world faced. Our role as NSO was crucial, as we became the key source of information for the government and for the country, and had to be reliable, relevant, and ensure quality. The main challenge to move forward was to be able to switch to new ways of data collection. In Palestine there was a lockdown, so there was no way for any kind of field work and we had to adjust based on our priorities and the developments in the country. The second challenge was to get more engaged with the use of administrative data. Another challenge was to be able to contact and manage our staff during the lockdown, because not all of our staff has laptops, or even Internet access. So, to operate and be able to do crisis management, we formed an emergency team that looked into our priorities, what we can actually continue working on. This team also worked on how to develop new methodologies, how to change our data collection tools, and how to get more engaged and communicate with our partners (government institutions, civil society organizations and private sector).

My next question is on the continuity of key statistical operations in the face of the lockdown and the restrictions that you were dealing with, for example around field data collection for surveys. Are there any specific steps you took in that regard?

Absolutely. If we are talking about the field work, for example, we decided to continue with the price indices, using the phone as a tool of a data collection. We moved from field work with face-to-face interviews, to phone and tablet data collection. We identified our priorities, including what data is important to collect for the crisis. We decided to continue the labor force survey, and to keep going with the price indices, as there were real fluctuations in market prices and the labor force. We succeeded in contacting immediately the International Labour Organisation (ILO) to explore the inclusion of new survey questions to measure the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on labor, and this is how we adjusted very quickly and moved to phone data collection. An advantage we had was that when we implemented our population and establishment and housing census in 2017, we had collected contact information that helped us succeed in moving from field data collection towards phone data collection. We did a trial, which went really well, in which we decentralized the operation across governorates, because you can't centralize when there is a pandemic and a lockdown. We established operation teams that met through webex and zoom, and established a day-to-day operation management process, looking at the data quality across the whole process of data collection.

On the other hand, we as national statistical offices have a real treasure of data that can be utilized. So it is not only about new data collection; it is also about utilizing data that we already have and that we can extract from our existing sources. That was really important, because the moment the COVID-19 pandemic reached Palestine, we started to immediately utilize the data that we already had and was relevant towards producing COVID-19 pandemic indicators.

The most important thing for the NSOs to cope successfully with the COVID-19 pandemic, not only inside the institution, but also outside, is to engage with our partners in government, civil society organizations and private sector. We conducted so many virtual meetings with them, to listen to their priorities and their needs, and we were immediately providing them with what they were asking for. In addition, we were providing data on a daily basis about Palestine in general, but also specific to the areas most affected with the COVID-19 pandemic. We started from day one providing them with the current data and extracting data from the current surveys and from the 2017 census. We will continue engaging closely with all of our partners and stakeholders from all perspectives.

Another dimension was about doing projections and estimates on the impact of COVID-19 on our economy. This was done in close cooperation and coordination with all our stakeholders: from the private sector and from the government, and also from international organizations. We discussed with them all the assumptions underlying the projections that we conduct on each economic activity, so there was a real consensus. But we didn't stop there, because we often make updates based on new developments, producing new estimates.

So we worked along three dimensions: (1) using the relevant data available, extracting indicators from the current surveys and from the current resources; (2) making projections; and (3) reprioritizing our work in the field and moving to phone data collection. We coordinated, engaged, and communicated on daily basis with all of our partners, bringing in the private sector. We were the first to initiate the engagement and the communication: No one approached us at the beginning; everyone was overwhelmed with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on all aspects of our lives, so no one brought the attention to PCBS. But initiated many activities and promoted our work. Afterwards our importance in getting relevant and timely data was recognized.

I want to come back to something you mentioned briefly earlier on about administrative data. In light of the emergency, have you adopted any new processes to make more extensive use of administrative sources? If yes, has this allowed the statistical office to produce statistics and disseminate products that weren't feasible before?

Absolutely. Before the crisis, we were regularly trying to get access to administrative data sets. But we're in the COVID-19 pandemic, and one of the positive lessons learned is that we agreed with [the providers of administrative data] on the minimal dataset that we had to get. We actually do not have to get everything—so when we agreed on the minimal data set it was much easier for them to focus. We cooperated a lot, working together, reviewing together, and producing the first few reports together. Then they made it on their own. This was really a great lesson in Palestine, because one of our real concerns in our national statistical system was actually how we can really develop our administrative data, because we're not really utilizing them in the best way. But being focused and defining the priorities and the minimum data set was really a great exercise.

One critical element to making best use of those administrative sources is interoperability—to integrate different sets of data to respond to increased data demand. What steps is PCBS taking to ensure that data relevant to COVID-19 can be used across different systems and across different organizational boundaries in the government?

For us the COVID-19 pandemic was a real crisis on everyone. But it opened our eyes to how we can move differently. Regarding data interoperability, we have to invest more in the NSOs, on our development of information technology, on the IT infrastructure, because this is one of our bottlenecks. The issue was not really statistics or data; the bottleneck was actually in our information technology infrastructure. Second, we have to invest also more in GIS. And third, we need to start putting the administrative data more to use, giving it higher priority, and improve data interoperability with our partners and stakeholders.

In the administrative sources we started focusing on this within the UNSD-DFID project, even before the COVID-19 pandemic. We have to start working with the best sources of administrative data—like the ministry of education and the ministry of health. And we have to invest more in the administrative sources of data and their durability more than any other thing. We can develop new methodologies towards collecting data in a cheaper, more efficient and timely way, while ensuring data quality. National statistical offices often focus a lot on what we want to produce. But data production is not as important anymore; but rather, the complementary tools and mechanism which we often lack. This has been clearly shown within the COVID-19 pandemic experience. It’s most important to invest more in capacity development of our staff, on the new tools that we can use, with or without a crisis.

You've touched on the way you have worked with different stakeholders, both within and outside government, on the relationship of administrative sources and interoperability, and bottlenecks with respect to IT infrastructure. Could share a little bit more about the way you have opened up to the private and non-traditional sources of data? You discussed and understood the needs of these different stakeholders to identify what was the crucial data to prioritize, but have you also opened up more in light of the pandemic to data coming from actors outside government, in private sector or non-governmental organizations, to produce trustworthy statistical outputs?

First, as a National Statistical Office, we were very open to provide all the data that we have, all the time series, with free and open access for our partners. This allowed them to cooperate and open their own data. And when we engage and communicate with our private sector, we listen to their needs and provide immediately with what they need for their companies—maps with time series, etc. And when we provide as much as data possible to all of them, this opens the possibility to work together. We started working closely with them on the projections of the impact of COVID-19 on our economy, and this is how we started identifying what data each of us has in order to measure the losses in our economic activities. We then discussed how to set up plans to overcome the impact of COVID-19 on our economy, and we as PCBS played a real role helping policy makers refine the decisions. They communicated a lot with us before opening the country, discussing which kind of economic activity they can open, what are the losses, and even what activities they have to support. We provided data on the micro businesses and the small businesses, and the high risk of the impact of COVID-19 pandemic from closing them, and this is how they were able to make decisions. So, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown how important the role of PCBS is in such crises.

It's amazing the steps you have been able to take and the opportunities and changes with respect to some of the relationships with stakeholders, as well as some of the solutions and tools you have been able to employ as a result of the crisis. Of all these learnings and the steps that you have taken, do you see a continuity towards a “new normal,” where some of those solutions will continue; where perhaps some activities that you may have been doing before are not as needed anymore, given the new solution and approaches that you've developed? Have the relationships and the role that PCBS is playing been changed, vis-à-vis policy makers? What kinds of changes do you see carrying forward beyond the pandemic?

Although the pandemic was really bad in all aspects, it was very positive to our experience. It was a shock that made us stop and rethink how to work differently. We were progressing, but not as fast. When the pandemic started, it just put things on track, and made clear that we can't work as before. It opened our eyes on the most important thing beyond our statistical work, which is the communication, the engagement, listening. We have to listen and set priorities based on real needs, and we have to change our way of thinking. It's time to really focus on our working mechanisms, and it's important to keep the communication and the engagement. And not only because we had this pandemic: this has to be part of our system and of our strategy. Now we are running data collection on the field and virtually, and we listen to the needs not only of the government but also of civil organizations and of the private sector, and we integrate them in our surveys. It is a “give and take”; we can't just take everything in order to have this kind of mutual engagement: there has to be a mutual benefit between all parties.

That's why we are now running a survey of establishments on the impact of COVID-19 on our economic activities, and a household survey. We have a real partnership where we listen to and integrated the needs of all our stakeholders. It's important not only to provide data, but also to be part of the operations; to listen on the importance of so many issues. For example, my mandate in the past was not to be a member of the group responsible for setting up a recovery plan for all the economic activities; now, we are a member of it. By being a member of a policy making team, I also learn more about the needs and the importance of what policy makers want. Without being a member of such team, my staff and I could not, as NSO, listen to what policy makers are asking for and understand the relevance of what they are asking for, as well as the timeliness that they are asking for. Now we are part of setting up plans of recovery of the economic activities, setting up a plan on poverty, and on so many other aspects. We are also a member with the High-level Committee headed by the prime minister, where on daily we provide them with reports on the current data that we produce.

In the past, no one knew about the importance of our role. We have to let people know how important our data is, how important our role is, so when we publish data we put also the same level of efforts that have been put into getting such data. It is a kind of marketing: promoting our role is important and we're not supposed to sit on our chair and wait for our stakeholders to ask us what they want. We have to be the initiators; we have to be the ones who approach everyone. That's why how the cycle can be completed. I really feel now much more satisfied than the in the 10 years I’ve been heading this institution. The NSO is very much engaged with the whole aspect of Palestine, and this is the way that we have to work. The challenge is how to continue.

Thank you so much and congratulations for all those developments. As you say, while the pandemic has certainly not been a positive for anyone, it is laudable and exciting to see the changes and the way in which your organization and you have responded to the shock. It is a shock but working differently to respond and therefore and then being much more fully integrated into policy making and engaging much more with data users effectively and a whole range of stakeholders is really exciting. Thank you so much for your time and for sharing your insights and your experiences.

Thank you. We really also benefited a lot from the best practices all over our sister NSOs, from UNSD and from all international un organizations. They were really marvelous, and even the website that has been set up by the UNSD-DFID project was marvelous, and we also appreciate all the efforts. Everything is now globalized, even the pandemic is a global crisis, and we all learn from all experiences. That's also another positive–it's not something that only I have to think on and overcome; there are so many best practices that we can learn from and that is really amazing.