As highlighted by Paolo Verme in a previous blog entry , statistical agencies in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) have now started to open up access to their raw datasets (micro-data). While the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS) has traditionally published much of its micro-data, the Egyptian Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS), the Moroccan Direction of Statistics within the High Commission for Planning (HCP), and the Tunisian National Statistics Institute (NSI), have recently made available some of their datasets. In a break with their old ways, they have begun either to post them on their websites or to share them on a bilateral basis. As Paolo mentioned, official fears about the improper use of data, along with external suspicions about their quality, were widespread – in MENA as well as in various other countries across the globe. Now that they can be independently assessed, the quality of the newly released micro-data in MENA has proven to be overall good, in line with international standards. Finally, the availability of the micro-data will benefit the countries concerned as researchers all over the world will be able to work on them and provide insights to policy makers. Although the road towards full openness remains long and windy, the process has nevertheless been set in motion, reflecting a drastic change in terms of governance orientation and attitude towards transparency – precisely the change that has been called for in the streets of Cairo, Sana’a or Tunis since 2010.
To support this wind of change, a group of donors active in the statistical domain (ILO , IHSN-Paris21 , UN-ESCWA  and different entities of the World Bank Group: Human Development  and Poverty Reduction and Economic Management network , as well as the Development Economics – Data Group ) and avant-garde partner countries (statistical agencies, as well as line ministries and data users, from Egypt, Kuwait, Morocco, the Palestine Territories and Tunisia) joined forces for the first time to launch the Data Improvement and Quality in Access initiative (DIQA – which reads as “precision” in Arabic) at the Center for Mediterranean Integration (CMI) in Marseille (France). The CMI – a collaborative platform unique to the MENA region that gathers together donors, member states and shareholders – has been strongly supporting DIQA since its conception. Reiterating the importance of data openness for the transformational process in the region, the World Bank’s MENA Chief Economist Shanta Devarajan also encouraged workshop participants to persevere on this path towards increased transparency.
The main aim of the workshop was to define a coordinated roadmap for DIQA over the next year, the funding period of the project. Donors and partners decided to focus on the following three core topics: (i) access to, (ii) visibility and (iii) cross-country harmonization of, employment and welfare micro-data. Indeed, access and visibility go hand in hand: In addition to making more micro-data available, efforts will need to be made to ensure that the public is aware of its right to access published data. This will entail working upstream with the statistical agencies on their communication and engagement strategies (including on their websites) as well as downstream with data users to better understand their needs and existing information bottlenecks. The work on harmonization will facilitate cross-country analyses, thereby allowing fact-based comparisons between participating countries. Donors, and partners alike, will cooperate to provide technical assistance and targeted capacity-building workshops, to favor intra-MENA exchanges and peer-learning, as well as to attempt to leverage additional financing to complement (scarce) existing resources.
Stay tuned for the next chapter of the silent data revolution, as DIQA opens more doors on micro-data throughout the MENA region!