The kingdom in hard facts

opinion January 27, 2013 00:00

By Pravit Rojanaphruk
The Nation

3,805 Viewed

Website collects data on a range of topics to do with Thailand. Its founders prefer to remain anonymous but are happy to chat about their statistics and what they mean for the country

Since coming online in May 2011, the Thai-language website has been steadily attracting more and more followers eager to check on or learn facts about the kingdom’s politics, society, economic culture, environment and more. Today, its Facebook friends exceed 50,000. Yet the identities of the people behind the site remain a mystery.

While respecting their wish to remain anonymous, The Nation on Sunday was recently able to interview the people behind WhereIsThailand via e-mail. They started the cyberspace chat by making it clear they want to public to concentrate on the “what” rather than the “who”.
“Our mission is to raise awareness on various social issues in Thailand and to put the country into the global context using factual data. Our credibility does not really matter, let alone our identities. We started this project in the belief that society should pay more attention to substance rather than form. Therefore, our own credibility is pretty much out of our equation.”
The group explains they number about a dozen and are made up of people from various backgrounds. “We are coming from different fields: science, education, finance, economics, literature, business and engineering. We rarely meet in person, but we’re held together by our values: that our society needs to hold fact-driven opinions; that we value a free flow of information and that there is hope for our country, if the former two are realised.”
Thailand, stresses the group, doesn’t lack facts. “We certainly do not lack empirical data, as all the data we’ve used on the page as references are publicly available. We believe that it is simply that society is not ‘used to’ using data to support arguments. One example is the major flood of 2011. The media talked about coordinating armadas of small boats to push the floodwater to the sea, yet no one reported what the river flow was before and during execution. Nobody gathered that data simply because there was no demand for it.”
Asked if they think Thais are more into believing than relying on facts and analysis, the answer is an unequivocal yes.
“Thai people are not taught to be sceptical, so personality and emotion usually become far too involved in any exchange of ideas. Analysis involves adding some personal bias, and can be subjective. Facts are objective. It is one of our goals to ‘let the data speaks for itself’ as much as possible. So we try to keep subjective part as minimal as we can.
“We believe there is more than enough analysis and comment in society these days. And we think that one should start any analysis/comment with the basic factual data before going any further.”
Some of the surprising facts they have discovered include: Thailand has the world’s second largest Chinese immigrant population and the highest percentage of female CEOs in the world.
“Some data surprised us because they showed something that goes against our traditional belief, for example that the major proportion of our GDP does not come from the agricultural sector anymore. And some data surprised us because they raised a big question: the biggest portion of our government budget has gone to the education sector for years, but our teachers have a very low income (on average) compared to the world as a whole, and our education system does not show itself as being in good shape.”
The group also points out that all the data that have been obtained are publicly available on the Internet.
On freedom of expression in Thailand, the group cites Freedom House figures and tells The Nation on Sunday that Thailand, like many other countries, “has its own social issues that need to be addressed”.
Readers won’t find anything on the lese majeste law on the website, however, and a que stion on the issue went unanswered.
Since the average reader spends only a very short amount of time deciding whether they want to pay more attention to the information, WhereIsThailand say they focus on only one thing: the data. “Many of the data are impossible to crunch into one infographic, so the text is usually where the full extent of the information is displayed.”
As of this month, the most shared article, according to Facebook, is about school uniform. “We have witnessed that topics which people can relate to easily and which reflect behaviour that is more peculiar to Thailand than the rest of the world are often rather popular.”
Sometimes, as in the case of an article about prostitution, they do get the facts wrong.
“The original French foundation who conducted the survey admitted it was a typographical error and eventually rectified the data after our readers helped point it out.”
Asked if they feel WhereIsThailand has been a success so far, the group says it would have never imagined a website dealing with a collection of statistics and hard facts could gain 50,000 followers. “So, yes, it has definitely succeeded beyond our original expectations. However, as the mission is to raise awareness, we still have a way to go and are unlikely to be finished any time soon.”
As a non-profit organisation, the group say they derive most satisfaction from seeing their followers recognise issues, take note of the data, search for more information and ask questions about Thailand.
Asked where Thailand stands, internationally speaking, the answer is more complex.
“We are not the best in everything, and we are not the worst. Where we stand depends on the topic and the angle you are looking at. If you browse through all our archives, you will quickly notice that it rarely shows us as the “best” or the “worst” at anything. We are just like any other country in the world with our own curses and blessings. Thais as a people definitely do possess some unique qualities, but then does every other nationality.”