Analyzing a world of data
Economist, data analyst, researcher, statistician. Bishnu Saha says all these roles complement each other and are appropriate titles for his work. His daily tasks as director of the Yukon Bureau of Statistics require a clear understanding of the intertwined systems of production and consumption. They also require the ability to analyze data for insight on issues, such as the effects of a new policy on trade or the reasons for trends in the labour market.
Bishnu also understands the power of data in the 21st century and the great task of using it to make sense of our world, trends, and our choices, as well as the systems that frame these choices.
“Knowledge of economics is needed to understand the system, while statistical knowledge and skills are required to analyze it,” he explains.
His role puts him at the helm of Yukon’s official statistical agency, which is a part of Canada’s national statistical system. It keeps him close to the data he loves and modern programmable software used to analyze it.
The Bureau feeds data and information to departments and agencies of the Yukon government, federal departments and agencies, business associations, research communities and other industry stakeholders.
Bishnu explains that once you have the right data, and can make sense of it, endless well-informed decisions are possible. He also likes the power of data to portray a clear picture and drive change.
“I take pride in the output we produce at the Bureau because there are no grey areas,” he says. “Black is black and white is white.”
Although he loves data, much of his role involves managing his team. He leads a group of data scientists, economists, research analysts, survey design and fielding experts, programmers, and media relations experts all working together on programs and projects to collect the best possible data and to transform data into information.
That data includes economic and social indicators, labour market indicators, real estate and housing statistics, and demographic indicators. The team has access to sensitive data about individuals and businesses, but Bishnu is firm in his commitment to privacy.
He believes the Yukon Bureau of Statistics maintains a neutral standing because the gathering and handling of data are guided by the provisions of the Statistics Act.
The Act protects Canadian citizens and residents by legally protecting the confidentiality of their information. It’s a far-reaching piece of legislation, he says.
“Nobody can influence us. Not even the court of law can force us to provide information. If a law enforcement agency comes to us asking for information on an individual or an individual business, we’ll simply say, ‘Sorry, we cannot do that, it is not allowed based on the provisions of our Statistics Act.’”
His leadership has fostered a commitment to excellence and diligence throughout the branch. He and his team advise stakeholders on matters of data quality and availability, processes and models for data analysis, database development, cost benefit analyses, and more.
As an innovative data expert, Bishnu appreciates the story telling aspect of data and information based on economic and social theories.
He says data helps us to understand economic and social conditions, societal afflictions, environmental conditions and other aspects of our world. Data even helps us travel through time to explore the past. But there is a lot of it and our current world of data would seem like chaos without experts like Bishnu to analyze it.
Before starting his PhD at the University of Guelph, Bishnu completed degrees in veterinary medicine degree and biochemistry at Bangladesh Agricultural University.
He spent nearly 13 years in postsecondary education – in Bangladesh, at Harvard University and at the University of Guelph (U of G).
He was offered admission to PhD programs in Australia and the United Kingdom, but - according to his calculations - Guelph was the best fit for him.
He quickly fell in love with economics at U of G. He began to see the world in a new way: How much of something is being produced? How much of it is being consumed? Does the price matter? If so, by how much?
It was while completing his PhD that Bishnu also reached an unexpected defining point in his career.
“I was working as a doctoral research fellow under the University Research Partnership Program,” he says. “A group of economists from Statistics Canada asked me if I could help them develop and run models to study price transmission.”
He was initially apprehensive about taking on the task because it was outside his area of expertise and current research. But he took on the challenge.
He developed and ran the model, obtained the results, and helped to write the final research paper.
“It was not my thesis area, but it… really opened doors for me.”
With his supervisor’s encouragement, Bishnu presented that paper at the joint annual meeting of the Canadian Economics Association and the Canadian Agricultural Economics Society in 2006.
Following the presentation, he was approached by the then director of the Economic and Industry Analysis Division of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC).
“He handed me a business card and asked, ‘Would you like to work with us?’” says Bishnu. “I said, ‘Sure’, without giving any thought to it.”
Bishnu had made another successful assessment of the data life handed him. Taking on a project unrelated to his thesis was a gamble, but he felt the probability of gain outweighed the risk.
Soon after he submitted his thesis, he started working at AAFC on price transmission models. “I consider this a defining point because my intention was to go back to Bangladesh after my PhD to return to my old job.”
It took a bit of convincing before Bishnu applied to his current role at the Yukon Bureau of Statistics, but he’s happy he made the decision. In his role, there is freedom to innovate.
“The field I’m working in now is evolving very fast — possibly the fastest of any field, from automation of output to machine learning.”
He’s keen to keep growing with the field and is excited to explore and contribute to the changes happening at the back end of this modern big-data-producing world.
“There’s a saying that goes: the world used to revolve around oil. Now the world revolves around data.”
This article was originally published in the LIBRANNI 2021 / Vol. 3
E'layna Baker is a fourth year student studying in the food, agricultural and resource economics major of the Bachelor of Arts program. She was the communications intern for the OAC Dean's Office, a position supported by Glacier FarmMedia, in the summer of 2020 and is currently a content creator for the Students_of_OAC Instagram account.
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