Statisticians need to ‘get beyond publishing the same numbers every month’

National statistician outlines ambitious plans for ONS Data Science Campus to ‘mobilise the power of data’ for decision-making

John Pullinger, the national statistician, welcomed the launch of the new Data Science Campus – Photo credit: ONS

Government statisticians must get better at working out what the most important questions are, and what data can be used to help answer them, the national statistician John Pullinger has said.

Speaking at the launch of the Office for National Statistics’ Data Science Campus yesterday (27 March), Pullinger said that the way people want, and need, to use statistics was changing.

“People who use our data want us to get it out quicker, and they want us to get it out in much more fine grain forms,” he said. “We have to break our data down so it’s relevant to the individuals, communities and business across all four of our countries.

“But, more important of all, is that the questions we need to inform are changing, and we have to change to get the data that’s necessary to make sense of those questions in the way they are being posed.”

Pullinger added that “often the data being put out is the same”, saying that the new campus would focus on a new philosophy of doing shorter, more targeted projects.

“We need to get beyond producing the same numbers every month, valuable though they are,” Pullinger said. “We need to get into mode of working out what are the questions of the day and what information we can bring to bear to ensure those questions are well informed.”

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The Data Science Campus, which was established as part of a £17m government investment in statistics at the ONS headquarters in Newport, Wales, will bring together the best people to help address this, Pullinger said.

“The whole philosophy of the campus is about doing short sharp projects that think about a question,” he said, adding that they would bring together “brilliant people” and develop the right data and insights that would help users make sense of those questions.

“It’s about doing real work, quicker, much more impactfully; doing real work that reaches decision-makers and the public,” Pullinger said. “The philosophy is at the centre of the strategy of mobilising the power of data to help Britain to make better decisions.”

The campus aims to establish connections and collaborations with academics, businesses and civil servants to work on specific projects in five main areas: evolving economy, urban and rural, society, sustainability and the UK in a global context.

Speakers at the event also emphasised the importance of integrating different types of data, by bringing traditional statistics, such as census information, and new data sources like geospatial information together.

Deputy national statistician Heather Savory said that this would be a focus of the campus’ work, and that the fields of traditional statistics and data science should be “seen as a continuum”.

Managing director Tom Smith, meanwhile, said that the field of data science – which he said sat between domain expertise, maths and statistics and computer science – was “not new to the ONS”, but that the opening of the campus was “an opportunity to step this up”.

As well as the data science projects, the campus will also offer a wide range of training as part of efforts to grow data science capability – something that has been identified as a cross-government priority by civil service chief executive John Manzoni.

Smith said that the campus was part of the government’s data science partnership, and that it is also offering data science apprenticeships and has launched an MSc in data analytics for government, which took in its first cohort last month.

He said that the campus was “working at pace” to deliver its ambitions, with its headcount expected to double between now and March 2018, from 26 full-time equivalent staff to 50 to 60.


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