Thoughts on data accuracy

This comic, from xkcd.com, reminded me of a current dilemma I am having in my own work on mapping community-based organizations responding to HIV/AIDS and TB in Kenya.

Cheap GPS from http://xkcd.com

The map we are creating utilizes data collected over the past 20 years by a non-governmental organization. The difficulty revolves around assessing the reliability of data collected and stored by NGOs responding to health issues – for the most part, this collection and storage is done without systematic data entry and management procedures.

Are such data valid in their own right? How do the data reflect the operations of the NGO in question?  Can such data be used as a benchmark of capacity in terms of research and data management? If so, could we say that any published material would be of merit as it allows researchers and policy makers to assess capacity and design training programmes to address gaps in data collection and data management. Or are articles and reports based on this kind of information misleading? Are they of little use, particularly in the academic world? Should they be held to the same standards as published academic research?

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