Hindered by data costs and access

  • Nation
  • Sunday, 20 Oct 2019

PETALING JAYA: High fees and a lack of full access to data gathered by the Statistics Department are affecting the quality of research in Malaysia, say researchers.

Such research is important, they argue, because it would often go into the planning of economic policies to chart the country’s development.

A dataset containing information on the incomes of 24,341 households collected in 2016 during the Household Income Survey (HIS) costs over RM60,000, according to an official quotation given to The Star.

Furthermore, the data offered to The Star, which made its request via the department’s e-Statistik, is less than a third of the 81,137 households surveyed that year.

The department’s policy is to only offer either 30% micro data with 100% variables or 100% micro data with 30% variables.

(Microdata is information about survey respondents on variables such as name, sex, employment, education level and other details.)

The quotation for all its surveys from 2002 to 2016 comes up to a total fee of RM276,030.

Universiti Malaya Economics Department Prof Dr M. Niaz Asadullah said he previously bought data from India’s national statistical agency for just US$1,000 (RM4,067).

“I got the full datasets after posting payment online. And the datasets are even bigger than ours. This is about freedom to information. I don’t think researchers even mind paying that much if they could get unhindered access to all the datasets, ” he said in an interview.

He said Universiti Malaya had an agreement with the Statistics Department allowing its researchers’ access to 30% of the datasets for free.

“But it is not unhindered access. For example, on the datasets on the household income and expenditure, you get 30% of the household responses and your variables are limited.

“This means they will not give you all the responses to all the questions they posed.”

He said that this lack of unhindered access is affecting the much needed critical and independent feedback from the rakyat to the government.

“This is also undermining public debate on social issues using evidence-based research, which is the hallmark of a functional democracy, ” he said.

He cautioned that the limited access to datasets could potentially cause Malaysians researching the same subject to differ in terms of results and key conclusions.

“The findings do not converge and stir up even more debate.

“That’s why sometimes, the results of the research do not tally with those undertaken by the government, ” he said.

This, he said, had adversely affected capacity development as well as in the drawing up of policies by the government.

“This a direction backwards for the government, ” he said.

Two months ago, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights Dr Philip Alston urged the government to reassess how it measured poverty so that the hardship faced by many Malaysians was not dismissed “by statistical sleight of hand”.

Political leaders here were indignant at Dr Alston’s report about Malaysia having “significant poverty” and that the poverty rate here is about 15%.

The government aimed to encourage open data among its agencies, even setting up an open data website at http://www.data.gov.my/, where there are currently 13,197 datasets.

In a recent letter to The Star, the Malaysian Academic Movement – Pergerakan Tenaga Akademik Malaysia (Gerak) – spoke of how researchers in academia were “at the mercy of federal officials” in their pursuit of data.

Gerak pointed out that publicly-funded surveys mainly conducted by the Statistics Department were “immense resources that can be analysed for the public good”.

“The government compiles data on demography and population, manufacturing firms, agriculture and plantations, labour force, household income and a host of other fields.

“The breadth, national representation, sample size and regularity of these datasets are unmatched by any research project.”

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