Tuesday, October 6, 2009

We're number one! ...or are we?

All my Norway Facebook friends are posting, reposting and cross-posting. Big news in these parts, the UN has announced Norway is the best country in which to live.

Husband originally called to tell me this. What I thought he said was "Hey! Norway is now the best place to live. The UN posted a poll on Facebook!" He let me rant on about shoddy data collection methods for a wee while before he corrected me. What he actually said was "I posted it on Facebook!" I really should listen to Husband a little better.

In any event, just because the results weren't collected by a Facebook poll, as a student of statistics and research methods, I still do think it's worth considering the methodology of the poll. I'm not here to comment so much on the results of the survey, but rather to really understand how Norway got to number one.

The Human Development Index (HDI) provides "a broadened prism for viewing human progress and the complex relationship between income and well-being." However, there are some important limitations of the index, namely that it does not include any factors related to gender or income equality, political freedom, or human rights (of course some clever souls have created separate indices for those).

It's worth noting that this is not actually news. Norway has held the number one spot every year since the HDI was initiated in 1980 (see page 167 of the full report*). It's also worth noting that Norway did not win the top spot by a landslide. Norway's 2009 HDI was 0.971, whereas the number 2 and 3 spots were taken by Australia and Iceland with scores of 0.970 and 0.969 respectively.

The methodology of the HDI has also changed. The report authors mention this on page 170, noting that "The human development index values in this table were calculated using a consistent methodology and data series. They are not strictly comparable with those published in earlier Human Development Reports." If it's consistent, then it should also be comparable. A fundamental measure of 'good' research is that it is reliable, which means that the same tests can be repeated using the same instruments. To change these instruments mid-stream calls into question the statistical constructs and comparability of the annual reports.

One of the reasons the underlying tests that comprise the HDI have changed is because the focus of the report has shifted. As of 2009, the report focuses on migration and opportunities available to immigrants in more developed countries. So the report is not necessarily measuring the best place to live, but rather the best place in which to live if you are in one of the less-developed countries looking for a new home that will afford you a longer life expectancy, easier access to education, and more economic opportunity. The HDI is not a measure of where you can find the best healthcare, school systems, and jobs (assuming these are measures of a good place in which to reside). It's more a measure of how to find better versions of those things based on where you originally come from.

So is Norway really the best place to live? Perhaps. But UN statisticians can't decide that - it's up to each of us to find our own best place. And you probably don't even need statistics to do it.
* I refer to the full 2009 Human Development Report when mentioning page numbers. You can check out the full report here.


  1. "
    UN statisticians can't decide that - it's up to each of us to find our own best place. And you probably don't even need statistics to do it.

    I couldn't agree more !!!

  2. Of course UN statisticians cannot decide which place is best, that is not the purpose of the HDI. HDI is, as the name suggests, a development index. It's a measure that tries to go beyond simplistic economic measures to broaden the focus of people involved in development work.

    Also it's worth noting that if it did include factors relating to gender or income equality, political freedom and human rights, Norway would still likely be at the top.

  3. Anon@5.30am, you are correct that determining the best place to live is not the point of the HDI, as I mention in the entry. However, this is what was being reported in the news, and I felt this was misleading. In fact, the article I linked to in the first paragraph starts out, "And the best country to live in is ..."

    When the media incorrectly reports information in this way, it gives many people the mistaken impression that the HDI is somehow a measure of the 'best place'.

    My point wasn't to deprive Norway of the top spot, but rather to evaluate in a more balanced way the purpose of the HDI as opposed to what was being reported in the media.

    Thanks a lot for reading the blog and for taking the time to comment!