On 30 October 2019 in Plymouth, RSS President, Professor Deborah Ashby, presented her president's address, 'Pigeon-holes and mustard seeds: Growing capacity to use data for society' at the University of Plymouth. In her talk, Deborah discussed the foundation and development of the RSS and its interaction with and relevance to broader society.
In 1887, the Royal Statistical Society was created from the London Statistical Society by Royal Charter. At its formation, the core principles of the RSS included using data for the public good, developing statistical science and building statistical capacity. These core principles have remained important to this day.
Moving on to discuss the presidential addresses from early presidents such as William Farr (1871), William Guy (1865) and Charles Booth (1893), Deborah explored the topics of focus for each president, explaining how these related to the core principles of the RSS. For instance, Charles Booth’s address showed his passion for the introduction of old-age pensions. In modern times, making proper provision for our aging population has raised many issues that require statistical input. Using data to understand better the pension crisis and to inform and improve related policy provides an example of the use of statistics for the public good.
Throughout her presentation, Deborah referred to the roles that women have played in the RSS, advocating the importance of continuing to ensure that the RSS benefits from the broadest possible representation to make use of the wide range of skills that diversity brings. Deborah illustrated the lack of diversity in the past by explaining that there had been more RSS presidents named William, David or George than there had been female presidents. Deborah acknowledged Florence Nightingale, the first female statistician to become a member of the RSS, who encouraged the use of statistical analysis in penology, education and medicine and who was passionate about the expansion of women’s education and role in society.
Towards the end of her presentation, Deborah revisited the core principles established in the Royal Charter and further discussed their relevance today. Using data for the public good requires us to think about the purpose and availability of the data that we collect. Developing statistical science is happening in abundance, leading to novel ways of conducting the national census and releasing and displaying results from it. As modern technology is now producing vast amounts of data, the need to build statistical capacity to process and analyse this data is also growing quickly.
Deborah concluded by reflecting on the title of her presentation. Both pigeon-holes and mustard seeds are ideas that come out of the work of Florence Nightingale. Pigeon-holes represent the enormous amount of unused data that we have. Florence Nightingale noted that pigeon-holes were where cabinet ministers left unused data and statistical information that could potentially be harnessed for the public good. Similarly, when referring to sanitary education in India, Florence Nightingale referred to not losing hope, as small mustard seed can grow into much larger plants.