Through her role as Technical Advisor to the Statistician-General at the National Bureau of Statistics in Nigeria, Lola Talabi-Oni recognized early on during the COVID-19 pandemic that aggregating data across government organizations could help to dramatically improve public understanding of the virus and aid ongoing response efforts. Working with the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data, hosted by the United Nations Foundation (UN Foundation), the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), and 14 other partners, Lola built and launched Nigeria’s National Coronavirus Geospatial Data Hub. The Hub uses cutting-edge data visualizations to improve accessibility to real-time COVID-19 information for government agencies and the general public. A central resource for data related to COVID-19 and response efforts, the National Coronavirus Geospatial Data Hub has been an indispensable tool in Nigeria’s fight against the virus.
In her local community, Lola has also played a key role in fighting the spread of COVID-19 through her volunteer efforts to provide meals and face masks for some of Lagos’ most vulnerable residents. We spoke with Lola about her experience for our “Spotlight a COVID-19 Heroine” series, which highlights African women who deserve recognition for stepping up during the global pandemic and serving their communities, constituencies, or countries with distinction.
Read our interview with Lola below.
Q: You are the Technical Advisor to the Statistician-General at Nigeria’s National Bureau of Statistics, and in this capacity, you have played a key role in Nigeria’s COVID-19 response efforts. Could you briefly describe what your role entails, and discuss the work that went into conceiving of and launching Nigeria’s National Coronavirus Geospatial Data Hub?
My role is really very dynamic. Initially, my work was focused on social statistics and macro-economics, but it has become much broader now. I also represent the Statistician-General at events, and often draft speeches and talking points.
In terms of the National Coronavirus Geospatial Data Hub, we were first approached in April by the UN Foundation’s Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data network as they began a project to coordinate data from the private sector and government agencies across Africa. We saw that this was a great opportunity for Nigeria to partner with other organizations, not just to share our data, but to improve our technical capacity and be able to better visualize it.
We knew that data would be coming from lots of sources across our country, and so we wanted to create a one-stop shop where people could see details of all the COVID-19-related data and the associated government responses in Nigeria. It’s pretty unusual to be able to provide real-time data in Nigeria, so I’m very proud that we were able to achieve this.
Q: What impacts have you seen so far following the implementation of the National Coronavirus Geospatial Data Hub?
I think the biggest impact is that more people in Nigeria are beginning to recognize the importance of data, and that there’s a need to build that capacity going forward—particularly for geographic information systems (GIS) mapping. Trying to meet that need and build a GIS unit in the National Statistics Office is a goal of mine.
Another achievement is that we’ve been able to work with multiple agencies, including various government agencies that have come on board, in order to share data quickly and at scale. The important role of these multilateral partnerships is something I think we should try to build upon in the future, and we’re already working towards continuing these relationships even after COVID-19.
Q: Can you share any insights about how COVID-19 has been impacting women, in particular, in Nigeria?
There’s one thing that has come to light through our data—we’ve seen that women’s earnings are often more affected by the pandemic and accompanying lockdowns than men’s earnings. Lots of women are traders in markets, and so they weren’t able to work during the lockdown periods. And workers in informal sectors, many of whom are women, are more likely to struggle in other areas when they can’t earn.
Also, education and taking care of children at home is generally the responsibility of women. So, when schools are closed and women can’t work to earn money, the impact on them increases—not only are they struggling financially, but the responsibilities of childcare and education also affect their overall wellbeing. That is another impact from COVID-19 that I’ve noticed.
Q: You have been involved in Nigeria’s COVID-19 response efforts not only in your capacity as Technical Advisor, but also as a volunteer. Could you talk a bit about your volunteer efforts?
During the full lockdown period in March and April, some partners and I were concerned that people who weren’t able to earn any money would be suffering from food insecurity. To help, we raised funds to set up a temporary food kitchen which provided around 1,000 meals a day to a small community on Lagos Island, which is home to some of the most vulnerable populations in the state of Lagos. We were able to do this for three to four weeks, focusing on providing meals for young children and the elderly, who would be most vulnerable to hunger—it was challenging to prioritize vulnerable populations when there was such high demand for meals. After the kitchen closed at the end of lockdown, we provided around 2,000 masks to people to help to keep them safe when they returned to their jobs and started to work again.
Q: As an African woman in a STEM-related field, what was your motivation behind choosing this as your career path, and what contributes to your motivation today?
It’s an interesting question as I’ve always thought of myself as being more involved with policy than working in STEM, even though I work with data and statistics. But I think the motivation for me is that here in Nigeria there’s a need for a system that collects and shares data locally and nationally. There’s a lot more to be done—we’ve hardly scratched the surface of what’s needed, but I do feel rewarded when I see the impact of my work, that’s what really encourages me to do more.