Anastasia Cunningham, News Coordinator
Mother nature is now breathing a sigh of relief, thanks to a huge step taken by the Statistical Institute of Jamaica (STATIN).
With the introduction of the innovative Electronic Data Collection System (EDACS), the institute is now moving from a manual, excessive, paper-based operation, to a fully automated, paperless system.
Starting the new year as an electronic, environmentally friendly data collection company, the approximate 120 field agents across the island have now shelved the cumbersome paper questionnaires for more stylish, convenient hi-tech computer tablets. They are now able to do multiple surveys simultaneously in half the time.
Additionally, STATIN's 11 offices across the island are now linked to the central electronic data system at the St Andrew headquarters.
EDACS now cuts the data processing turnaround time by more than 40 per cent, reduces the margin of error by 90 per cent and saves the company a minimum of $4 million per year.
Established in 1946, STATIN is responsible for the collection, processing and analysis of data, as well as the publishing and dissemination of statistical information relating to the commercial, industrial, social, economic and general activities and conditions of the Jamaican people. Additionally they do Jamaica's population and housing census. They also conduct surveys for private clients.
Embrace technological age
At the dawn of the new millennium, the powers-that-be realised that something had to be done to make the organisation more efficient, reduce the excessive use of paper while embracing the emerging technological age.
"If you work at STATIN and you see the vast amount of paper we use to do our job, it doesn't take a lot to realise that we had to do something about paper. If you look around the office, you will see what I mean," noted Howard Hamilton, director of the information and technology (IT) division, sitting in his office at STATIN's head office.
"From back in the day they realised that they needed to pay attention to how we work and the processes involved. It was identified from day one that technology was going to be a key enabler to making some of the changes that were supposed to be made."
He continued: "When I started working here five years ago, that is what I started to work on. I looked at how we worked and started making attempts to make some of those changes, trying to get rid of the paper. What we did in IT was look at what was happening in the institute and decided that this was how we were going to go, after looking at several recommendations."
After some re-budgeting and with the assistance of the Inter-American Development Bank, Hamilton and STATIN's IT team began work on a software that would achieve the objective. This led to the birth of the fully Jamaican EDACS application.
"Under the old system, the interviewers would go out into the field with paper questionnaires, fill it in manually and that information would then go through a data processing phase, which is typed or scanned into the system. They would then have to go through a verification process to ensure that what was captured on the paper is what is in fact input in the computer. This process leaves room for some amount of error," he said.
"In the pilot project we did in 2010, one survey that would take us a week to gather data and then input in the computer took us only two days with the electronic system. And this was at a time when persons were not fully versed on the system, so as soon as they get better, over time, we believe that will improve some more.
"When we did the cost-benefit analysis in 2010 we found we actually saved more in terms of paper and operational cost, plus we no longer needed the same amount of staff to input the data."
The 42-year-old IT specialist noted that despite the fact that STATIN was well on its way to achieving the fully automated objective, the organisation will not be able to go completely paperless until the organisations that they work with make the same move on their end.
"I am determined to see this through to the end and I am really looking forward to us doing more in terms of reducing the amount of paper that comes into STATIN and to see us get to a point where we become very efficient and effective so that when we produce statistics, which is our main product, one can attest to the quality and accuracy in terms of the process that we use to get these products out," Hamilton told The Gleaner.
Speaking during a press conference to launch EDACS at the Knutsford Court Hotel in St Andrew yesterday, director general Sonia Jackson said the initiative was part of a modernisation plan started in 2002 and aimed at the strategic development of STATIN.
Merville Anderson, director of field services, called it a new dawn for field services, adding that words could not describe how much it was welcomed by the field agents.
Julian Robinson, minister of state in the Ministry of Science, Technology, Energy and Mining, said this was an indication of where Jamaica was moving to, technology-wise, noting that the Government itself was working towards a central government network that would link all ministries and agencies.
Emphasising the importance of accurate, timely data, Robinson said "the challenge we have is that Jamaica has fallen in all international indices over the last number of years and I think a significant reason for that is not that we haven't grown or developed, quite the contrary, but we simply have not been in a position to accurately capture the information and the data and to present it to the international organisations who measure and rank us, which is significant".
Robinson said STATIN could now explore if there was a demand in other countries for software such as EDACS, which would now present an avenue to earn revenue.