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Amid UN Political Gaffes, UNICEF on Big Data Quality, Line in Central Asia

By Matthew Russell Lee

UNITED NATIONS, January 28 -- UN gaffes like Secretary General Ban Ki-moon inviting and then disinviting Iran to the talks in Switzerland on Syria undermine the UN's credibility. Meanwhile other parts of the UN system, like its Children's Fund UNICEF, labor along trying to make their institutions and their data more credible.

  On January 28, two days before UNICEF's State of the World's Children report is to be released, four data experts or self-described geeks used slides and regression to prepare the press to cover the report.

  The report is still under embargo but it is no secret that like many other UN reports it contains lines of dashes, data not available, for countries which either do not report or won't let the UN in.

  Inner City Press asked the UNICEF quartet about these dashes, and also how they take into account that data which countries self-report might be cooked to make the country's governance look better.

  UNICEF senior adviser Attila Hancioglu, to his credit, acknowledged that there are countries which are resisted transparency and in which UNICEF has stopped doing Multi Indicator Cluster Surveys or MICS. Inner City Press asked how many countries these might be. Hancioglu wouldn't put a number on it, but did mention one Central Asian country as particularly problematic.

The Statistics chief of UNICEF, Tessa Wardlay, also acknowledged that government's statistics "may be subject to political bias," and said that's why UNICEF does "data quality checks."

So the focus was on how credible the data are, or are made by UNICEF. Holly Newby said of 75 data points on stunting, for example, UNICEF deemed only 70% of them acceptable. The rest may have been good enough for use in-country, but not for UNICEF.

The data can be mapped using Google Earth; it is compiled under "DevInfo," a platform that UNICEF proposed to the rest of the UN system ten years ago, Claes Johannson said. Even when it is proposed, such as on the banning of royals or those holding or seeking office from being goodwill ambassadors, UN agencies are not consistent.

UNICEF for example seeks to retain a royal, Queen Rania, as in essence a goodwill ambassador even if the draft proposal on which Inner City Press exclusively reported is adopted by the UN system. The proposal is that "the designation of immediate family members of individuals holding or running for political office, as well as members of Royal Households, is discouraged to avoid the appearance of vested interest."

  UNICEF's Kate Donovan told Inner City Press:

"Her Majesty Queen Rania Al Abdullah of Jordan was appointed in a unique role as the first ever UNICEF Eminent Advocate for Children in January, 2007.  She is a passionate and outspoken advocate for the world’s children. UNICEF is grateful for the support, especially Her Majesty’s tireless efforts to promote girls’ education and empowerment. The updated guidelines, upon approval, will apply to future appointments, and UNICEF will adhere to them....She will remain, and we will respect the new guidelines."

  So, each part of the UN can go its own way: sauve qui peut, some might call it.

   The UNICEF "State of the World's Children" report will be released on January 30. Watch this site.


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