Remember the viral photos of mass funerals across India when the country peaked at the COVID-19 attack in April-May 2021? The devastating effect of the pandemic was evident through the media lens but did not reflect in the official figures. The media and experts called it a “massacre of data”.
Looking into Bangladesh, questioning the official data of the virus death toll was irresistible as the country ranked amongst the lowest in coronavirus testing. The inadequate test rate eventually downplays the number of confirmed cases and the deaths caused by the virus. No way the data vacuum was filled up by fearful rumours of suspected “hiding deaths” whispered over social media. But it did not last longer than four weeks since the first case was detected in Bangladesh in March. From April 2020, an academic data source started publishing regular statistics of the number of deaths with COVID-19 symptoms. The data source is the Bangladesh Peace Observatory of the Dhaka University, established by UNDP Bangladesh’s ‘Partnerships for a Tolerant and Inclusive Bangladesh’ (PTIB) project. When the leading Bangladeshi media started picking up BPO data on COVID-19 symptom deaths, it pulled the reins of misinformation acts on the rumours of unofficial deaths propagated to create social unrest.
The establishment of BPO was primarily raised from the lack of data on extremist violence in Bangladesh. A deadly violent extremist attack in 2016, which resulted in 24 deaths in the heavily securitized diplomatic hub of the capital, triggered widespread policy and societal responses to violent extremism in the country. Following the watershed attack, stakeholders involved in preventing violent extremism (PVE), noted a scarcity of data on violent extremism in Bangladesh. Stakeholders also found data scarcity of the broader spectrum of violence in the country and related trends, the geographical distribution of violent acts, and the impact of such acts on local communities. The absence of reliable, structured, and accessible open-source data was believed to have limited the ability of public institutions, civil society, academia, media and development partners to effectively understand, identify and differentiate between different forms of violence. And, thereby, inform research and effectively engage on relevant policy interventions, including in PVE.
On the above context, BPO was formally launched on 13 April 2017 as a UNDP Bangladesh supported project. Over the years, the BPO platform has uploaded over 110,000 data on 26 categories of violence from 2014 onwards, making it the largest data source on violence in Bangladesh. BPO data can be easily accessed and downloaded in easy-to-understand formats, free of charge, to any interested person. Former Foreign Secretary Shahidul Haque commended the BPO for taking a “big step to fill the data gap”. He said that by “explaining issues like social tension through numbers and figures, BPO contributed to the statistical practice of knowledge, and help in a big way”.
The “statistical practice of knowledge” mentioned by the former Foreign Secretary needs to be more practised in Bangladesh. Especially when it is about reducing violence or building social cohesion, actions are rarely driven by data evidence. In an oral society like Bangladesh or any of its South Asian neighbours, the absence of data-centric mindsets is a challenge in promoting a data culture. In doing so, BPO routinely consults the journalists, law enforcement and development practitioners of the different fields to whom BPO data is relevant. BPO also offers bi-monthly reports, research volumes, annual conferences and briefings to many stakeholders to ensure that the data produced is not only available but is accessible and used.