Hiding Data

Regular readers know one of the things that annoys me is people shading or hiding information. Without information, one cannot decide what’s going on. So I was dismayed to read this piece by Steve Benen:

For some inexplicable reason, Republicans have been preoccupied for quite some time with Baghdad’s electrical supply, pointing to it as one of the good-news stories that Americans allegedly don’t hear about. The White House urged the media to cover it more a year ago; Tony Snow bragged about Iraq’s electricity-generating facilities; and then-House Speaker boasted of Baghdad’s shining lights as an example of progress in the war.

At one point, the president even felt a little sorry for himself, whining to reporters at a press conference, “[I]ncreasing electricity in Baghdad is not the kind of thing that tends to get on the news.”

The reason Benen feels this focus makes little sense is that… the electricity supply to Baghdad has been dropping and dropping and dropping… Eventually, reality catches up even with this administration, so they came up with a plan to do something about it:

As the Bush administration struggles to convince lawmakers that its Iraq war strategy is working, it has stopped reporting to Congress a key quality-of-life indicator in Baghdad: how long the power stays on.

Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week that Baghdad residents could count on only “an hour or two a day” of electricity. That’s down from an average of five to six hours a day earlier this year.

But that piece of data has not been sent to lawmakers for months because the State Department, which prepares a weekly “status report” for Congress on conditions in Iraq, stopped estimating in May how many hours of electricity Baghdad residents typically receive each day.

Instead, they’ll report on “electricity generated nationwide”, rather than electricity actually received anywhere. There are three advantages to this I can see for folks who are more interested in manipulation of data than actual results:

1. The new series is not comparable with the old series, making then and now comparisons harder.
2. Electricity generation is easier than actually getting it supplied somewhere.
3. Electricity generation figures are easier to fudge than electricity supply figures. One can always say: “We produced X gigawatts.” How do you check? But if they claim “Baghdad is receiving 20 hours of electricity a day” anyone at a hotel in the city can tell you whether that figure is in the ballpark or not.

All in all, this is a bad sign all around. Its a bad sign that once again, data is being manipulated. And its a bad sign that things are getting worse in Iraq. Come to think of it, hiding this data in itself gives us some data about what is going on.