President's Column

Data literacy is key to sustainable development

Warren Brettenny

31 March 2022

Pouring over the abundance of emails that make their way across my desk on a daily basis, I came across an announcement that 2022 has been officially proclaimed the International Year of Basic Sciences for Sustainable Development by the United Nations General Assembly ( After my initial quandary about what this may mean for us as a statistical community, it wasn’t long before it dawned on me that this ties in directly with one of my personal targets as a statistics practitioner and academic - and those as my role as president of SASA.

I was recently interviewed as part of a piece which spoke to the importance of data science and its role in the university curriculum ( In that interview I mentioned that "data literacy is as important as any other literacy" – be it language or mathematics. This is indeed a passion of mine. In my opinion, the answer to many of the misinformation and fake news scourges gripping our modern times, is a community or society with an adequate level of data literacy.

Data literacy – in this sense – is a foundational (or basic) knowledge of statistics, the data from which these statistics are derived, and the "best" (read "most honest") way to present or represent the data and your findings from it. Equipped with this knowledge, much of the news and data which is presented as fact in traditional and social media platforms, can be assessed with a more discerning eye and with sufficient ability to make the right conclusion in each case. This ties in with the call for Basic Sciences to be highlighted in 2022. If a higher level of data literacy were to be widespread, the risks associated with misrepresentation of facts will be mitigated and many forms of misinformation and disinformation could be combatted. It is with this basic knowledge that media outlets and social media posts can be called out and kept honest through insistence on honest and factual reporting of data. Without these basic skills, data and their representations are bound to be manipulated and misrepresented to tell the story the authors wish to tell, rather than the story told by the data itself.

With us currently in the middle of the “data age” it is not a stretch to reason that data literacy will play an important role in the sustainable growth of skills and employability in the country. Recent articles indicating the most in-demand skills in South Africa ( almost always indicate data centred skills as predominant in the current employment landscape. This highlights the role that data is playing, and will continue to play, in modern society. So, just as language literacy is essential in our ability to communicate with each other, data literacy is key to a growth in a society that relies so heavily on it.

It is with this in mind that SASA aims to align itself with aims of the international scientific community for 2022 and plans to play a role in the education of scholars and students to address the need for basic data skills and literacy. To this end, Prof Fabris-Rotelli (SASA Vice-President) and I have started (and will continue) to reach out to statistics departments and industry players to get a sense of where SASA can be most effective. From the meeting which have already been held, we have gained valuable insight into where SASA can make a difference and into the areas which require our the most urgent attention.

As an association we are committed to bringing our community together and to reach out to areas and regions that have been underrepresented. The first of this is to bring the SASA conference to the heart of the Garden Route. Held in George, this is the first time (at least to my knowledge) that the event will be hosted in the region. (Without an institution available to host the event, the SASA EC will be hosting the SASA 2022 event.) Our online seminar programme – which is yet to start for 2022 – is also targeted to bring attendees from every part of the country into the fold. The days of siloed knowledge are – and should be – a thing of the past.

Please feel free to be in touch with me if this is something that you are passionate about – and we can plot a way forward together (