Q&A with Jon Kapp, coordinator of the Asia–Pacific EFAInfo database on education
Bangkok, 17 August 2009 - Just over a third of the world’s countries have achieved or are on track to achieve the Education For All (EFA) Decade goals of early childhood care and education, universal primary education, adult literacy, gender parity, quality education life skills and lifelong learning and life skills and lifelong learning. Still, much remains to be done, and it has been difficult for the remaining one-third of countries to get on a similar course.
UNICEF East Asia and Pacific Regional Office (EAPRO) offered to adapt its DevInfo for tracking the EFA progress as part of an Asian mid-decade Assessment. (DevInfo is a powerful database system and inter-UN agency initiative used to track progress on the Millennium Development Goals.) From UNICEF–UNESCO collaboration, EAFInfo has just emerged. EAFInfo is an education database designed as a tool for compiling, circulating and communicating data from all of Asia (Central, East, South and South-East) and the Pacific region.
Jon Kapp, an education consultant who assisted in the development of EFAInfo, talks about the beauty and the timely usefulness of the database, which is now available at http://www.devinfo.info/efainfo/ and which can be customized to individual countries.
Q: What is the purpose of this education database?
The initial purpose of database was to capture the situation of the mid-decade status of achieving the EFA goals and, to a degree, explain why a country might be off the mark, if it is. Many countries can tell you they’ve made a 7% increase in their ‘survival rate’ – that 7% more children are staying in school to grade 5. But they can’t really tell you why. Nor can they target specific groups whose survival rates are lowest or the areas in most need of additional support. To replicate any progress, or increase it, we need to understand better what actually has happened. This database can help in that way.
Q: Who are the intended users?
EFAInfo also is a great resource for journalists or other analysts looking at local, national or regional education or education-related issues. International agencies and NGOs also will be interested in what they find in it, especially when looking to target programming or to target support in education across a region.
Q. How can the database show a country how it’s not achieving the EFA goals?
EFAInfo has the potential to pinpoint where religion, caste, disability, extreme poverty or other sticky issues inhibit children’s access to school or academic performance. It can expose possible misreads and intracountry disparities, such as in the case of Myanmar, which on first glance is the only country in the Mekong subregion to achieve gender parity in net school enrollment. But on closer inspection through the subnational information and with a clarifying map that the system can instantly produce, it becomes alarmingly clear that girls are significantly disadvantaged in a large western swath of the country while boys are heavily disadvantaged on the eastern side. So while the national average suggests all is well, the subnational data actually reveals how two “wrongs” can give the appearance of a “right”.
Q: What is in the database?
Countries have brought to us their own datasets. They’ve also shared with us draft and final reports coming from national data systems and national databases. We’re filling the database with data from household surveys, the multiple-indicator cluster surveys [MICS, conducted in many countries across the region] and other interesting surveys happening within countries that provide a different perspective on education.
There is also included qualitative data, such as whether education is universal, free or compulsory in any one country and other education-related policies. Because it is linked with DevInfo, there is built-in capacity to make beautiful maps, tables and charts – without needing expensive software or extensive training to do so.
The database is a public interactive web site, so countries can search for data on it or download info from the web. It is also available on a CD-ROM.
Q. How is the data organized?
For each EFA goal, there is a core set of indicators used for monitoring and assessment purposes. To assess EFA Goal 1 on early childhood care and education, for instance, there are indicators to measure participation in early childhood programmes as well as indicators of health, sanitation and nutrition. We see with this example that the EFA goals go well beyond the education system.
A user could, for example, search out education-related data from all countries that have participated in the MICS or household surveys, which can offer data for interesting analysis of the characteristics and achievements of those in and out of the education system. Others may wish to query related issues of gender – such as the disparities girls or boys face in the education and the longer-term outcomes of those disadvantages (in terms of economic productivity or participation in the political process for example).
Q. How well can it uncover disparities in access to various levels of quality education?
The database enables a two-step or multiple step process of ‘drilling’ down for insight. The international data allows for countries to look across the region and compare their position to that of their peers and neighbours – a prime minister or education minister is interested in that comparison. The minister can then say, “We’re falling behind – what can be done?” What can be done can be answered through analysis of the disaggregated data. For example, if we want to make improvements in enrolment in, say, Thailand, the northeast is one place to start; or in the far south, where quality of education is a real issue. But we can also see from the data that traditional disparities among girls do not necessarily exist in Thailand. In fact, more Thai girls are attending higher levels of education than boys. What we can see clearly, though, is the influence of poverty – for boys and girls and in all regions of the country – on participation in education. Some of the explanations for that can be found using the disaggregated data in EFAInfo.
What becomes really interesting is the inter-play between variables, for example, in rural areas by gender, ethnicity or language and poverty. In Thailand, we find that the children most in need of support are those who face not one but multiple barriers to the education system.
The coverage of this kind of data isn’t 100%; in fact, it’s often very spotty. But it’s there to whet the appetite of those who will be either building the country’s system or adapting the system to give an inspiration of what can be collected and then see the usefulness of having it.
Q. Countries tend to have their own system for collecting data, so how does it make country comparisons possible?
We are using the special features of EFAInfo to provide annotation of the data and recommend ways in which the information that’s there can be used appropriately. It will be flagged and tagged as what it is: in some cases national data for internal analysis and in others as international data.
Q. Who determined the indicators included in the database?
But countries also have been encouraged to go beyond the indicators. In most countries there’s an EFA national coordinator, which is a fairly high-level position in the education ministry. That person got together with other high-level policy specialists and thematic specialists (such as gender and early childhood issues) to work through the set of indicators and refine them for their country context.
Q. An EFAInfo 1.0 was released in 2007 and now there is a second version, EFAInfo 2.0. What’s the difference?
The model was released through regional trainings in Fiji and Thailand to support the ongoing mid-decade assessment. Trainers worked with counterparts in database construction and how to use it in the analysis and assessment of available data. That’s really the important thing UNICEF can offer: The data is there and countries have the capacity to compile data but they don’t always have the opportunity or capacity to analyse the information.
EFAInfo 2.0 will contain all the data collected through the assessment and other sources.
Q: What’s the greatest thing about EFAInfo?
Indicators and metadata. Significant time and energy was spent in a consultative, interagency process to develop the indicators proposed for the EFA mid-decade assessment. This information – to soon be published in a 200-page reference guide – has been captured in EFAInfo. These standards facilitate an exchange of information and help to ensure a standard approach to calculation and interpretation of data. If someone is new to education statistics and doesn’t know what to look for, this database is really helpful. But it’s also important for database administrators to understand how to calculate these indicators, how they can be presented and how they can be used.
This is no small contribution, and one that, while specific to Asia and the Pacific region, could be adopted and further customized in other countries or regions. The indicators and standards are in the system now, and it’s just a matter of adopting them in new contexts.
Breadth and depth of the dataset. The regional database goes beyond standard education data to look at issues such as health and economics. And the data goes down below the surface through the subnational data. So you’re looking at education from multiple perspectives. It is very rare to find data across such a range of issues, with the depth necessary to make relevant decisions on policy or programming. EFAInfo allows for an expanded analysis of education, using not only system data collected regularly by the education ministry but also unique and insightful data from household surveys. This allows the user to ‘triangulate’ analysis on a particular issue for a perspective and understanding that is hard to reach.
Ease of access; ease of presentation. There’s a huge amount of information that’s been compiled into one place and designed for ease in retrieving and presenting it. The presentations of analysis are powerful. While statistical software packages are typically used by statisticians, EFAInfo is easy to use and thus can be used quickly by nearly anyone.
Maps at your fingertips. The best presentation of data is one that reaches the audience with the message needed to be conveyed. As in styles of learning, each individual sees and understands information differently. Both DevInfo and EFAInfo allow the user to create maps, tables or graphs without having GIS expertise or expensive software. It sounds elementary and it is, and that’s the power of it. It’s quite easy with the click of the button to do any of those things. EFAInfo makes the maps or tables for the user to illustrate their analysis. For example, we can make a map on boys and girls participation in education and a series of maps, we can show the differences. It enables users to reach new audiences.
I heard a good story from South Asia that illustrates EAFInfo’s real value: A colleague once shared a set of maps of his country with data by province – made using the data from the national database. When the maps were shown to the prime minister, he could see for the first time how inequitable the distribution of public services was in the country. Of course he had always known the numbers, but now he saw, in full colour, how one region just wasn’t being served and other regions were being over-served. My colleague called the moment a ‘revolution’. The prime minister saw the unfairness and immediately committed to change the way the provision of service was implemented.
The story of EFAInfo is not one of making new tables, graphs or maps, but it is what we can do with them. The success stories will be in the decisions that are made with this data and the outcomes that are realized. EFAInfo has the chance to be quite powerful in that regard.
Q. You say the database doesn’t provide any analysis?
Q. What about accuracy and reliability of the data?
Because of the nature of that data, any national data from the mid-decade assessment that has not been published has been flagged as provisional data throughout the database.
Certainly there are differences among international figures and national figures (partly because population estimates differ). This does not mean that one is more accurate than the other - just a different calculation. But the differences actually lend themselves to important discussions, often with positive results. We can take it as an opportunity to sit down with a minister of education and talk about why a UNESCO or UNICEF figure is, say, 10% lower than their national figure. In some cases, a country may not count non-citizens when, for instance, calculating enrolment rates. Whereas an international source would take an estimate of all the people in a country, whether they’re citizens are not. This type of caveat will be noted, where it applies, in the database.
Q: What’s been the response so far? Do people see this as adding to their workload or making their work more efficient, more accurate, more comprehensive (in terms of data collection)?
From the users’ perspective, EFAInfo certainly does not add to their workload but helps to alleviate it. For the first time, maybe ever, a unique set of education data has been collected and compiled in a structure that is both flexible and accessible. Users are in a better position to access a large set of data (often the biggest hurdle to overcome), position it within a monitoring framework and present the data for analysis.
Soon, country-generated data will replace this set, but the frameworks used for analysis will remain.
So far I’ve been to Mongolia, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Vanuata for training. As I mentioned, regional trainings have taken place in East Asia and the Pacific, with a similar training under discussion for South Asia in early 2009. There is definitely interest, but plans for implementation vary, given the context. Some countries that already have a central DevInfo database in place, like in Cambodia with CamInfo, are looking at either bolstering that or creating EFAInfo as a satellite that will feed into something that already exists. In other countries, like Vanuatu, which has no national monitoring mechanism yet, they’re using this education database as the step towards something bigger.
With EFAInfo, database administrators in the education ministries don’t have to ‘re-create the wheel’ in developing a monitoring tool for the education system. From a national development perspective, implementation of a national EFAInfo database – especially in countries that currently use DevInfo for central monitoring – raises the profile of the education system and ensures that this fundamental human right remains a priority. EFAInfo should be conceived as a complement to the existing systems – a tool to share data and make the critical decisions required to continue development of the education system and to improve the status of children throughout the region. This starts one child and one school at a time.