John Pullinger interviewed by Statistics Views

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Statistics Views, the statistics website of the publishers of the Royal Statistical Society’s Journal, Wiley Blackwell, has just published an interview with John Pullinger as he begins his presidency of the Society.
 
In the interview (viewable as video footage and in transcript format), John talks about his career as a statistician and its highlights so far. He explains why big data is so important at the moment, and the potential for innovation that it could bring – as well as the challenges that come with it.
 
John also talks of another important role for statistics – in measuring progress and guiding policy making decisions, commenting that ‘statisticians need to have a seat at these decision-making tables.’ He also outlines the importance of recognising professional statisticians, and the value of chartered status.
 
Another priority outlined by John is promoting the value of professional statisticians, particularly those with chartered status. ‘We need to distinguish professional statisticians from someone who uses statistics to support an argument and purely purvey the numbers for their own use,’ he says.
 
Read/watch the interview in full here.
 

Society’s Member Survey 2012 – results published

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The results of the Royal Statistical Society’s recent member survey, compiled and presented by the RSS’s honorary officer for membership Ed Swires-Hennessy, are now available to download on the Society’s main website.
 
The electronic survey was completed by 1,240 members – approximately 20 per cent of the total membership – during November and December 2012. The profile of respondents, in terms of length and type of membership, was similar to the Society’s overall membership.
 
As a membership organisation, the Society is held in high regard by the survey’s respondents, who gave it a weighted mean score of 8.1 out of 10 (overseas members rated it even more highly, at 8.5 out of 10). Furthermore, 94 per cent indicated they would recommend RSS membership to a friend or colleague.
 
The survey also shows that community aspects of membership and supporting the profession are among the most important reasons for membership, while member benefits and career development appear to be deemed less important.
 
Of the member benefits, however, Significance magazine was rated most highly, with 93 per cent of respondents considering it very/moderately important, and more than 90 per cent rating it either ‘good’ or ‘very good’. The RSS journals, RSS NEWS, regular news by email and the professional awards also scored well.
 
While almost one thousand of the respondents indicated that they would be interested in actively contributing to the work of the Society, only 11 per cent of respondents currently volunteer for the RSS (in organising activities, attending governance meetings or producing materials). ‘The challenge will now be to activate these resources,’ commented Ed Swires-Hennessy.
 
Hetan Shah, executive director of the RSS, said: ‘Overall, these are heartening findings. We are taking note of what our members say and feeding this into the current strategy review, so that we can continue to improve the way we work.’
 

Office for National Statistics revamps website theme pages

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The Office for National Statistics has introduced new ‘theme’ pages on its main website – aimed at the non-specialist user – to encourage more people to take an interest in statistics.
 
The theme pages cover key areas – economy, labour market and population – with plans to roll out others over the next couple of months. The newly created interactive theme pages pull together a variety of sources and use formats such as video, podcasts and infographics, aimed at making the topics easier to explore and more appealing to the general interest user.
 
The ONS is continuing work to improve the accessibility of its website, and recently enhanced the search function as part of its ongoing programme of work. It now has a social media channel and users can subscribe to email alerts when data or publications in their chosen themes are released (click the ‘Join us’ tab on the right-hand side of the homepage to see the full range of options).
 
The remaining theme pages will be rolled out during spring and early summer. Users can see how this work is progressing at www.ons.gov.uk
 

Society criticises proposed new measures of child poverty

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The Royal Statistical Society has warned that public trust in statistics could be threatened by the way the government proposes to change measures of child poverty.

The Society has responded to a consultation by the Department of Work and Pensions which proposes to change the way in which poverty is measured. Rather than focusing on household income, the consultation proposes that a ‘multidimensional’ measure be used in order to ‘capture the reality of child poverty in the UK’. Proposed factors include worklessness, unmanageable debt, poor housing, parental skill level, access to quality education, family stability and parental health.

The RSS is concerned that rejecting household income as the basis for assessing poverty could effectively hinder comparison between children in the UK and those elsewhere in the European Union, from international league tables compiled by the OECD and by the United Nations. All use a definition of household income relative to the median.

The RSS says combining together parental skills, whether parents are married, children’s school attainment and a variety of other indicators are not only technically very difficult but could potentially conflate causes, symptoms, things associated with poverty, and things which do not seem to be related to poverty in any major way.

The Society also criticises the use of a Money Saving Expert poll quoted in support of the case for change, (on page 16 of the consultation paper), saying it is ‘meaningless, invites ridicule and risks damaging public trust’.

Hetan Shah, executive director of the RSS, said: ‘When the way critical public numbers are calculated is changed, political consensus is vital if trust in statistics is to be sustained. We are concerned that an apparently technical exercise may be being used to bring in changes that are political in nature.’

‘We are not convinced there is a need to change the official definition. It is highly unclear what the government’s objection to the current measure is, particularly as the government seemed to have accepted the definitions contained in the Child Poverty Act 2010.’

The RSS’s response to the consultation can be viewed here.

Major changes to school league tables announced

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The Department for Education has proposed changing the way in which school league tables are constructed and has launched a consultation on the matter.
 
In a statement to the House of Commons on 7 February 2012, education secretary Michael Gove announced new proposals to change to the measurement of secondary school performance. Rather than focusing on how many children achieve a C pass in five GCSEs, which Gove said focused teachers too closely on pupils on the C/D borderline at the expense of other students, he proposed two new measures which are currently out for consultation.
 
The first would be to measure how well pupils do in English, maths, three subjects from his defined ‘English Baccalaureate’ subjects plus three further subjects. The second would be a point score showing how much progress every student makes from Key Stage 2 to 4.
 
The RSS welcomes the move in principle and will be studying the proposals in depth before formulating its own response. Former RSS council member Harvey Goldstein, a chartered statistician and professor of social statistics at the University of Bristol, has already authored ‘Measuring Success’, a 2012 report on school league tables, which highlighted the limitations of school league tables and recommended that they should be accompanied by prominent ‘health warnings’. The shortfalls of the current system have also been highlighted by Chris Cook, Martin Stabe and Cleve Jones at FT Data (video footage viewable [subscribers only] here).
 
The consultation period ends on 1 May  2013 and the Royal Statistical Society will publish its response on www.rss.org.uk in due course after this date.
 

RSS president urges ‘scrupulously fair hearing’ for Greece’s chief statistician facing felony charges

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The Royal Statistical Society’s president John Pullinger has written to the president of the Hellenic Republic Karolos Papoulias (pictured), to urge that ‘a scrupulously fair hearing’ be given to Andreas Georgiou, the head of the Greek statistics agency, ELSTAT.

Georgiou is facing felony charges and has been accused of falsifying Greece’s 2009 fiscal data, along with two other ELSTAT employees. The former IMF statistician was appointed to ELSTAT in November 2010, a year after the start of Greece’s debt crisis. After he took over, the country’s 2009 budget deficit was revised up from 13.6 to 15 per cent of GDP.

MPs produce critical report on trust in government statistics

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The UK Commons Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) has concluded that while government statistics are produced to a high standard, there are problems which risk public confidence in the statistical system and must be addressed.
 
The report, titled ‘Public Trust in Government Statistics’, published today (25 February 2013), reviews the effectiveness of the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007, which was brought in to restore public confidence in the statistical system.
 
The RSS submitted written evidence to the inquiry, and in September 2012, Jill Leyland, then RSS vice president and Jenny Church, then chair of the RSS Statistics User Forum, gave oral evidence to the committee.
 
While the committee felt that the Act has ‘helped to improve the operation of the statistical system’, and that its Code of Practice ‘has set a clear standard’ for Government departments to adhere to, it noted the criticism that the Office for National Statistics received in a recent stakeholder survey, in which its data was described as ‘poor’. The report calls for greater clarity and transparency in the way the UK Statistics Authority operates and recommends that data is better presented on its website.
 
Professor David Hand, former president of the Royal Statistical Society and chair of its National Statistics Advisory Group, has welcomed the committee’s recommendations, saying: ‘If implemented, they would give the public greater reason to trust official statistics by strengthening the UK Statistics Authority in its role of independent watchdog of the official statistical system.’
 
The RSS particularly welcomes the committee’s recommendations that the current policy on access by ministers to official statistics ahead of their formal release – known as pre-release access – be transferred from them to the Authority. ‘As we set out in our submission to the committee, there is strong evidence suggesting that lack of confidence in statistics is in large part due to perceptions of political control or misrepresentation,’ David Hand explained. ‘Allowing ministers to write the policy on pre-release access perpetuates that perception and so is a major obstacle to improving confidence.’
 
The report praised the recent interventions of Andrew Dilnot, chair of the Statistics Authority in correcting misrepresentations  of statistics in parliament. This praise was echoed by David Hand, who commented: ‘We endorse the Committee’s view that the public interventions by the chair of the Authority, Andrew Dilnot, have been highly effective. These interventions, like those of his predecessor, Sir Michael Scholar, send a strong signal to all that official statistics must always be used fairly and accurately.’
 

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