Stefan Schweinfest – Why Statistics Count

By on 26/08/2014 | Updated on 26/08/2014
Stefan Schweinfest, the new Director of the UN Statistics Division

On 1 July 2014 the United Nations Statistics Division appointed a new Director: Stefan Schweinfest. In an exclusive interview with Global Government Forum, he discussed sustainable development, combining statistics with geospatial information, the Post 2015 Development Agenda – and time travel.

Statistics. Numbers that opposing sides throw at each other. That groups argue over. That millions of people disbelieve. Yet without statistics how can we tell if the world really is warming, or whether populations in flood plains really are at increased risk, or whether countries are getting richer or poorer?

Imagine being in charge of all the United Nations statistics from all over the world, historically collected in different ways, with different methodologies and with varying degrees of rigour. Now imagine being told to give highly accurate statistical forecasts for what is going to be happening in ten years time, in a world in a state of constant change.

That might be a problem for many, but for Stefan Schweinfest it is what he loves doing. In fact he is been working with the Statistical Division for a quarter of a century, all those years at the UN headquarters in New York.

So what do they actually do? Stefan lays out the three core disciplines:

‘We have a team of about 125 permanent staff here at the UNSD. The main tasks are, number one, to collect data and information from all over the world in different areas. We do that for instance on statistics for demographics, energy and industry, a broad spectrum.

‘The second point is that we work on methodologies to make international data comparable so we can agree on joint classifications, definitions and so on. So we have to harmonise international statistics and then, through international consultation, we agree on standards, methodologies and recommendations.

‘Then, point three, we have a programme of technical co-operation where we work with countries to help them implement those recommendations and standards. This might be areas like census taking, national accounts and so on.

‘Also, about five years ago we took on the additional responsibility of working in the area of geospatial information. That has been an exciting new area.’

Post-War Trends

The UNSD has been doing this, and more, for a long time. In fact the department considers 1947 as its starting point, which was the first meeting of the Statistical Commission. The Commission is formed from all the Chief Statisticians around the world and meets for a week every year. They review the UNSD programmes and give guidance on future projects. Stefan views them as ‘my executive board’.

Since that first meeting, Stefan can see themes emerging over the intervening decades. Unsurprisingly, in the immediate post-war period the emphasis was on economic statistics. In the 1950s there was national accounting, so that everyone could use the same language and measures for things like GDP. Social issues were more in demand in the 1960s and ‘70s. By the 1990s environmental statistics were much more in demand. The Millennial Development Goals brought many of these themes together for the first time and now we have sustainable development as a new theme.

The Early Years

Stefan has been there for many of those periods. He grew up in Germany where he studied economics and mathematics, and then completed his studies at The Sorbonne in Paris. This was followed by two years at the London School of Economics. He then brought all this interest in international affairs, economics and maths together when he took part in the competitive exams for young statisticians at the UN in 1988. The rest as they say is history. And statistics.

Practical Statistics

As to the future, there are two major threads that Stefan would highlight: the Post 2015 Development Agenda and the development of Global Geospatial Information Management.

The Post 2015 Development Agenda actually has its roots back in the late 1990s, as Stefan explains.

‘We have a UN family, and in that family we have about 25 different statistical units, and we share data and use similar classifications. So you can relay data from one area, say the economic area, to the social area. This is becoming more important as we look at sustainable development as people want to make a more comprehensive policy analysis.

‘I would say that one of the most practical examples of our co-operation within the UN statistical family has been the production of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). We’ve been doing these reports since 2000 where we put all the information existing in the UN system into one report.’

The Post 2015 Development Agenda

However, in hindsight, Stefan thinks they can do even better going forward.

‘In the lead up to the MDGs and since, we were struggling – many countries were struggling – for many years to actually come up with reliable data to measure the MDGs. That is of course something we want to avoid, looking forward to the next 10 to 15 years.

‘Right now it is a very interesting period because we are discussing the Post 2015 Development Agenda and the statisticians really want to be part of the debate early on. We are not only there for monitoring after something has been formulated, we can actually help formulate goals and targets. That way we can ensure that later on we can really measure them and have a functioning accountability system. There is a lot of interaction going on between the statistical community and the policy makers, which I believe is a very good thing.’

‘Exciting Things Going On’

Stefan’s involvement with the United Nations Global Geospatial Information Management (UN-GGIM) is rather like time travel, as he explains.

‘When I joined the UN about 25 years ago, the statistical system was already relatively established. Because I like history I would read about how this all started in the late 1940s and I would have a little wish that I could do some time travel and go back to see how it all started. Later on I realised my wish was sort of being granted.

‘In 2009 we started to form this Committee of Experts on GGIM which brought together all the cartographers and geospatial information managers from all the different countries. We were going through that journey again of creating an international, global platform.

‘What we found before that was a very fragmented area with lots of exciting things going on. This involved classical map making up to very sophisticated satellite imagery, so our goal was to bring that community together. I think we have made a lot of progress over the last four years.

‘It is very clear that the numerical statistical information on the one side and the geospatial information on the other will create a very, very powerful set of analytic tools if we bring it all together. It’s like a marriage.

‘If you can geocode certain statistics then you can tell where people live, how poverty is distributed, how crime is distributed and so on. So in the case of a disaster, you can say what population groups are affected, what are the infrastructures, or factories that would be affected and so on.’

Geodetic Reference Frame

One of the measures that Stefan is most excited about is the passing of the resolution on a global geodetic reference frame. This was at the recent Fourth Session of the UN Committee of Experts on GGIM held in New York in early August.

‘I think the resolution is historic because we do have geodetic reference frames already but they are being established and maintained in a rather ad hoc manner. It is clear that what we need is very detailed information on the exact coordinates of the globe, and of course some countries have more elaborate systems than others.

‘All of the problems and challenges in the area of the environment, and particular global climate change and so on, do not stop at a political border. I think this is really a fundamental task where the UN is well placed to make a major contribution in the spirit of voluntary but effective co-operation.

‘The resolution says fundamentally that the world, the community of professionals across all countries, will now take joint responsibility for defining the coordinate system and updating and maintaining it.’

Our Ever-Changing World

Stefan reminds us that we live on a very changeable planet: ‘With every earthquake, every movement of the waters, with melting polar caps and the expansions of the oceans, the world changes every minute. What we clearly need is very detailed information on the exact coordinates of the globe.’

The constantly changing planet means that statistics need to rigorous and constantly updated so that location has time applied to it as well. Stefan puts it thus: ‘If we look at a situation in a country I don’t believe we are trying to take pictures. We are trying to make a movie. What we are really measuring is development over time.’

Making Data Credible

Trying to put highly accurate numbers on this changing planet is not easy, but Stefan is aware that it is essential the numbers his department produce are absolutely correct. Governments and their publics are at times suspicious or cynical about some of the data produced so there is an important task to ensure all data is accurate and free from any perceived spin or pressure. This is something Stefan sees as core to his department.

‘One of the things which is the essence of my office at the UNSD, and also of my dual function as Secretary of the GGIM Committee, is to ensure that data is internationally comparable and authoritative. That means the data has been produced according to a well-defined scientific process so data is reliable and reproducible. We are measuring development, which as I said is movements over time.

‘Authoritative information must have the trust of users, because the government’s function is very much shaken if users don’t believe in the official information. It is very difficult for the government to actually implement the policy changes needed if there is not a societal consensus as to where we stand and where we want to go.

‘One of the most important assets of any information institution at the national level is the public’s trust. Once we lose that we really lose all ability to make a meaningful contribution.

‘So the public trust is very important, and is based on information management; institutions respecting privacy and confidentiality; and establishing a record of authoritative, scientific data that has not been politically interfered with. That applies at the national and also international level because no country operates in isolation anymore, every country is part of the global community.’

An Optimistic Future

While Stefan is extremely confident and optimistic about the future, he does have concerns that the UNSD has realistic expectations placed upon it, and that those expectations are backed up with the tools to do the job.

‘We must be realistic in terms of not overloading national statistical systems with information requirements that they will not be able to provide. I think it would be very sad if we had an agreed development agenda but, 10 to 15 years from now, we discover that we were simply not in a position to measure whether we had made progress in that area.

‘I would stress the importance of statistics and the geospatial information in support of any policy frameworks because only then can you really have a fully accountable framework.

‘Unfortunately good statistics are not cheap. They do require continuous investment and there are very few shortcuts. The only way to have a consistent and sustainable information flow over the next 15 years is to invest sufficiently in national statistical systems.

‘We don’t want to fly blind. We need to know where we have started from and where we are now in order to adjust policy making as it is necessary.’

About Graham Scott

Graham is an experienced editor and publisher and an award-winning writer. He has travelled extensively and is interested in world cultures.


  1. I really enjoyed reading this article. I will contribute to the important work the team behind the UN-GGIM does, by spreading this information to our 2,000 members in Kartografiska, the National Cartographic Society of Sweden.

  2. Sibylle von Oppeln-Bronikowski says:

    I really appreciate this article and I am sure that I will quote Stefan´s ideas and messages from now on. I like the picture “Statistics. Numbers that opposing sides throw at each other.” But more important as playing with figures is, that statistics is a matter of trust. I am very thankful to seeing this message highlighted, that trust is based on “scientific data that has not been politically interfered with.” As a guideance for official statisticians it is helpful to rely on the “Fundamental Principles” which have been endorsed recently by the General Assembly of the United Nations.

  3. Chris Brydges says:

    Stefan is quite right in his concept for the use of statistics and their importance for future development. However it is important to remember statistics are only as reliable as the researchers, research methodology and those who commission the research intend them to be, for example, governments who manipulate the raw data in order to show an increase or decrease in a sample e.g. poverty and employment etc. to justify their policies.

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