Monday, June 20, 2016

Government to replace pen and paper with tablets for data collection

NEW DELHI: Pentium is mightier than pen - at last the government's army of data collectors have admitted to this. July will see the first data collection exercise ever that will substitute pen-and-paper with computing technology (tablets in this case), and this is a first step in what will be a quick digitisation of this vast government programme.

July's first quarterly Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS) will be conducted by researchers using tablets, and guided by what's known as computer-assisted personal interviewing (CAPI) technique. The statistics ministry has asked for around 700 tablets, at a per unit cost of Rs 20,000. Surveyors of the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) will track and upload employment data, making huge time savings. 

"We have moved a proposal to the finance ministry to get 700 of these devices for PLFS, which is in advanced stages of being implemented. We used to collect data on paper which was then sent to data processing centres and then uploaded, leading to delays. In a way, we are setting a precedent," said an official from the ministry of statistics and programme implementation. This officer and others who spoke to ET did not wish to be identified. 

Use of technology can speed up data dissemination, they said. 

For example, the government's employment data is available only once every five years from National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO). 

Plus, its scope is limited to the coverage area of the Annual Survey of Industries (ASI). ASI looks at registered factories only. The labour ministry's quicker quarterly surveys, started since the global economic crisis of 2008, are also not broad enough in scope. The US produces monthly employment data, and India needs to get there, officials said. Technology is critical in achieving that. 

Use of technology so far has been limited to back office. The statistics ministry runs portals that can process data. And postal department employees collect consumer price inflation data in rural areas and feed it into computers in back offices. But the interface of the surveyor and the surveyed has so far been pen-and-paper. 

Those tablets in July will, therefore, represent a sort of a breakthrough. They will have data validation powers. They will come loaded with a schedule of questions and software that will, when data is fed, estimate critical indicators like unemployment rate and workforce participation. 

Assessing officers will be able to edit data collected while conducting interviews and any anomalies, for example, expenditure exceeding income, will be highlighted immediately. 

"Data validation will happen simultaneously and then transmitted online to the centralised data processing unit to process it," the official explained.

Private sector economists see this as a major step. "Accuracy will rise and surveys can be uploaded fast. This is the way data should be collected. It will assist in assessing the economy better," said Crisil Chief Economist DK Joshi.

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