Midata scheme set to make us all consumers of data

Written by Web News Editor on . Posted in Features

You may have heard of the Cabinet-Office-initiated Open Data project, which provides us with more access to government information/official data. You may be a regular user of data.gov.uk . You might be interested to know that there is now a new kind of parallel scheme called Midata which is set to make consumer data more readily available to us all.
 
The people – the companies, the organisations – we do business with know a lot about our purchasing habits and they have the data to prove it. So far, although the Data Protection Act already allows us to ask any organisation – including private companies – to show us the information they hold on us, few of us seek it out and so the data these companies have on us has mainly benefited them.  Now the government is pushing for us all to have easier digital access to all our personal transactional data so that knowledge of our patterns of spending can benefit us too.
 
Under the Midata scheme, we should be able to use the information in the data held on us to, for example, monitor our usage of utilities, take our usage profile to new providers and, if we want to, switch products/organisations to save money.
 
On this morning’s ‘Today’ programme, Brian Glick, editor in chief of Computer Weekly and John Hayes, Minister of State for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning said that the government’s new scheme is about  “allowing (consumers) to make more informed decisions”.
 
Even if the data – it’s about us – is data we will be somewhat familiar with, there will still be lots of different levels of experience of interpreting patterns in data so the new scheme will need to consider its users’  needs and abilities and make sure that it is supplying data in the most helpful form. It is good to hear that consultation on this is already underway (set to close in mid September).
 
Whist there are  26 large companies (e.g. EDF, Mastercard and British Gas) signed up to the scheme so far, there are plans to make this approach to opening up consumer data compulsory.  It will be interesting to see how quick companies are to get fully behind this scheme and  – very importantly – how much appetite there is on the part of the consumers for this data.
 
From a getstats perspective, it will simply be good to learn more about how to interest and engage the wider public in the use of useful data.
 

Official records: Ours, theirs, or shared?

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In a couple of months, the Administrative Data Task Force chaired by Sir Alan Langlands is due to report. Langlands, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, is working on behalf of the Department of Business Innovation and Skills and the research councils on how the mass of data collected by public agencies about individuals and households might be pressed into more fruitful use.
 
More intense use of admin data could cut the cost of research and – for example in health – allow better testing of therapies and changes in medical practice.
 
But the exploitation of ‘personal data’ worries people, amid fears of Big Brother. Professor Ross Anderson fears confidentiality could be breached and our private lives made public knowledge against our wishes.
 
This is a debate RSS getstats needs to monitor closely. It seems there’s a class of number that the public feel ambiguous about; if alarmed, they might become more suspicious of statistics and impede efforts to promote a ‘numbers mindset’ and enlarged understanding of the necessity and beauty of stats.
 
Often, debate is confused. Are the numbers collected by the state public or private? In the UK tax records are regarded as highly confidential. In Scandinavia, what citizens owe the state is seen as legitimate public knowledge. Many public services are consumed collectively (public health and safety and education for example), and their statistical base needs to be open and shared.
 
The public are often very keen to see personal data – for example about people regarded as a threat to the community. The Cameron government, following its predecessor, wants maximum transparency for data from public bodies, as a way of holding them accountable: doesn’t that imply reciprocal transparency, affecting the data they collect from the public?
 
It feels like we’re on the edge of a new era in the use of administrative data, but that public attitudes are not yet fixed, and there’s a lot of argument yet to be made and won.
 

Schools "Tackling Numbers" program up for award

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getstats is excited to hear that ’Tackling Numbers‘ – an interactive numeracy programme for young children developed by Premiership Rugby and run in partnership with MBNA - has been shortlisted for a Sports Marketing 360 Award in the “Making a Difference” category.
 
Representatives from all 12 Aviva Premiership Rugby clubs deliver Tackling Numbers, an interactive rugby-themed numeracy programme for 8-9 year olds across 5 weeks of classroom sessions and practical number-based rugby games.
 
In the 2010-11 the programme reached 8,400 children in 280 schools across 14 English regions. More than three quarters of teachers reported the programme  improved and strengthened pupils’ attitude to numbers.
 
It’s great to hear about children getting fit, doing data work and gaining basic numeracy know-how which will underpin their development of quantitative skills in the future.  Also by starting to think about how they will – one day – manage their money, they are taking their first steps on the path to financial literacy.
 
Making teaching meaningful is key. It’s the application of numbers that we are all most interested in. Teach Statistics through the subjects that young people are interested in, make it clear how they can use Statistics, make it fun too and you’ll have them hooked.
 
See this short video of rugby star, Tom Wood and teachers at a Northamptonshire primary school lending ‘Tackling Numbers’ help to year 4 pupils in the classroom and on the pitch.
 

Win a prize for showing impact of stats

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The steering committee of the International Year of Statistics is running a video contest to help launch a worldwide celebration of the positive impact of statistics.
 
The committee, which includes Professor Denise Lievesley of King’s College, former president of the RSS, is asking for videos four minutes in length or less that illustrate how statistics impacts on people’s lives, improves society; how statistical thinking can be brought to bear on important issues of our day; or tell about interesting careers using statistics.
 
Cash prizes worth up to $1000 will be offered for the best videos, with special prizes for the best videos by a person or persons 18 years of age or less and the best non-English language videos.  (Providing the committee with a written translation or providing English subtitles would be especially helpful.)
 
‘Entries will be judged on their statistical content and their entertainment value. All submissions must be the original design and creation of the entrants and must not infringe anyone else’s copyright protections.  Submissions must be posted on YouTube with a link sent to Tom Short, chair of the Statistics2013 Video Contest review committee, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., by October 31, 2012.
 

More workers, less work

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British workers are noticeably less productive on average than those in comparable countries. According to the Office for National Statistics, output per worker was 20 percentage points lower than in the other top countries, which make up the G7.
 
Output per worker has fallen, relative to most of those countries, since the recession started in 2008.
 
But the figures may reflect a characteristic of the UK labour market that has shown through other recent data. It’s not that British workers are noticeably less productive, at least in a European perspective. Last year the amount produced each hour by each worker grew in line with the average and faster than in the US and Germany.
 
It’s that more staff are employed, and that pushes down the average output per worker. Despite flat market conditions companies have maintained their staffing levels, preventing a big rise in unemployment.
 
No single firm or employer is making a trade off between keeping employment levels relatively buoyant and some falling away of the output of staff, but at an economy-wide level, we seem to making a collective choice in favour of jobs over output.
 

Party conference season

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Civil servants need better training in stats, the Liberal Democrats say in a paper discussing science, maths and stats education and the need to ensure public policy is more securely based on evidence.
 
 As the party convenes its annual conference in Brighton, the Liberal Democrat policy paper says ’civil servants would be better equipped to fulfil their roles if they were trained in the basics of statistical science, evidence-based policy, and the scientific method’. It does not say whether these gaps in Whitehall have become more obvious now that Liberal Democrat ministers in the coalition are witnessing them at close quarters.
 
 The paper, drafted by the Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge, Julian Huppert, pleads for more training, and more recruitment of civil servants with a background in science and engineering. MPs need better access and familiarity with statistics, too, it says and advocates a beefed-up role for the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology.
 
 The paper proposes an independent Office of Science Responsibility to check departments were using evidence in their decision making. It is not clear whether this would count as a new quango, reducing the number culled by the Coalition government.
 

Building statistical capacity in parliament

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The getstats campaign aims to improve how we handle numbers – the practical numbers of daily life, business and policy.
 
Statistics are tools that turn data into useful information and help us to make better and well-informed decisions. As the supply of data increases, statistical understanding becomes more and more useful, in parliament as among the public at large.
 
To this end, RSS-getstats has  - with the support of the House of Commons Library and the All Party Parliamentary Group  - been running a programme of seminars for peers, MPs and their staff,  helping them to make the most of data in their work.  getstats in parliament seminars to date have focused on issues relevant to the work of parliament,  most recently health,  sport and – coming soon – crime and education.
 
In his blog today, Mark Easton, getstats campaign Board member comments on a survey of parliamentarians which the campaign commissioned in late 2011. The survey’s findings forms part of a wider and on-going look at the statistical needs and interests of parliamentarians and into how data and statistical know-how impacts on parliament’s work both as a legislature and in holding executive government accountable.
 
Parliamentarians may not have come through the survey with flying colours (although they fared better than the general public in our 2010 survey of wider public audiences which asked the same questions )…however, the good news is that the getstats programme in parliament continues to work with MPs, their staff and researchers to raise the importance of statistics; a dedicated training and capacity building programme will start next month.
 

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