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The WTO's Economic Research and Statistics Division (ERSD) hosted the discussion to foster dialogue among different groups on how to address the challenges it and other organizations face in drawing information from data that can be designed and presented to the public in a useful way.  The seminar also discussed what trade-related phenomena have yet to be captured by trade data and how organizations can work together to generate these statistics.

Some of the challenges identified by the participants include: “big data” techniques to extract information from extraordinarily large and complex data sets; how to accurately measure and track electronic commerce; how to measure and analyse the impact of non-tariff barriers on trade; and to what extent initiatives such as open data sourcing can address the growing concentration of data in private sector hands.

Senior WTO economist Coleman Nee noted that the WTO has moved from producing data for annual statistical publications to disseminating many types of data online. This includes more detailed services trade data, trade in value added statistics, tariff information, and higher frequency — quarterly and monthly — trade statistics, among others.

Since the financial crisis of 2008-09 the WTO has also tracked new trade measures through its monitoring reports, and produces more detailed trade forecasts, he noted. The WTO is also producing new composite indicators for trade such as the Goods and Services Trade Barometers.

Nevertheless, Mr Nee said current gaps in the trade data include data related to e-commerce, such as the value of data flows, bilateral data on trade in services, and trade flows related to intellectual property. And while trade classifications are regularly revised in response to the changing composition of trade, data usually lags behind technological developments.

“The data is out there, but it needs collaboration and harmonization,” he said. “Mostly it is a matter of resources dedicated to producing and maintaining databases, which is still very labour intensive even in out digital age.”

Marion Jansen, Chief Economist and Director of the Division for Market Development at the International Trade Centre (ITC), said one of the biggest challenges facing statisticians today is how to address the increasing amount of data sets held in private hands. The ITC is already working with companies such as Alibaba on how to address the issue and ensure full access to data, she noted.

“There are some interesting data sets out there in the private sector, and this will probably be even more the case in the future,” Ms Jansen said.

Ms Jansen said another challenge for statisticians is how to address the impact on trade from non-tariff barriers, such as product safety and health standards. “We don't know how to capture that, and we don't know how that is captured in big data,” she said.  “It’s a difficult issue that will take some time to solve.”

Sean Doherty, Head of International Trade & Investment at the World Economic Forum, cited improving comparability and compatibility of trade data sources and getting more specific micro data as areas where the data could be improved. Another area that would be of particular interest to traders is data on actual trading conditions, such as delays at borders and bureaucratic delays.

“Clearly this needs to come more from the user, from the private sector,” he said. “But we are on the cusp of getting much better access to that data.”

Monika Mrázova, Associate Professor at the University of Geneva's Institute of Economics and Econometrics, said the “dream of trade economists” is getting better data not just at the country level but from a wider data set that would allow for much broader analytics. 

Ms Mrázova agreed that securing data from private sources was an issue and that statistics on the trade impact of non-tariff barriers was “definitely an area where researchers would welcome more informative datasets”. She also said the trade impact of subsidies was “definitely an area where we are missing good data.”

“Before we can collect good data on subsidies, we need to first define what a subsidy is,” Ms Mrázova said. “What is an export subsidy, what is not. If we cannot answer that properly then we cannot collect data on these measures.”

Last November the WTO launched its Data Portal, which contains statistical indicators related to WTO issues. Users can now find in one database both annual and short-term (quarterly and monthly) data on merchandise trade and trade in commercial services as well as information on bound, applied and preferential tariffs, non-tariff measures and foreign affiliate trade statistics.

More information on the Data Portal is available here.

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