ONS website criticised in PASC inquiry

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The website of the Office for National Statistics has been widely criticised by MPs, journalists and users of official statistics, in a parliamentary inquiry looking into the way statistics are communicated.
 
 
The Royal Statistical Society submitted written evidence, as did its Statistics User Forum. The RSS acknowledged that although improvements have been made regarding the communication of statistics, ‘more effort is needed’. The Statistics User Forum commented that ‘priorities are skewed too much towards producing statistics rather than communicating and providing access to them.’
 
The RSS suggested that the ONS website should explain ‘in plain language’ issues that surround the data, such as seasonal adjustments, limitations of the data or margins for error. ‘Educating journalists, reporters and others in the media is of particular importance,’ it added.
 
UK Statistics Authority chair Andrew Dilnot and National Statistician Jil Matheson gave evidence on December 12, 2012 before the committee. The ONS website was described as ‘awful’ by MPs at the hearing and particular criticism was directed at its search function. Andrew Dilnot admitted that the site’s relaunch in August 2012 ‘was not one of our greatest moments’. He did, however, insist that ‘a lot of progress has been made’ in recent times and that improvements would continue to be made (as explained on the ONS website).
 
Jil Matheson acknowledged that meeting the needs of both casual and expert users was not an easy task, and that understanding these needs were part of an ongoing development programme.
 
Meanwhile, a fifth inquiry into official statistics – this time looking specifically at migration statistics – has been launched. The deadline for submitting written evidence is noon on Tuesday 22 January 2013 and the RSS is currently formulating its response.
 
The remaining five inquiries relating to statistics are to examine the following topics and will be carried out in due course:
 
  • Transparency, open data and statistics
     
  • The Census
     
  • Budgeting for statistics across Government
     
  • Statistics for the economy and public finances
     
  • The comprehensiveness of official statistics

 

RPI unchanged but new index introduced

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The national statistician, Jil Matheson, has recommended that the formulae used to produce the RPI (Retail Prices Index) should remain unchanged, despite stating that one of the arithmetic average formulae used (the Carli)  does not meet international standards.
 
Jil Matheson cited the ‘significant value to users in maintaining the continuity of the existing RPI’s long time series’ and recommended that RPI continue unchanged so that it can continue to be used for long-term indexation and for index-linked gilts and bonds.
 
Explaining that the arithmetic formulation in question would not have been chosen were the Office for National Statistics (ONS)  constructing a new price index, Matheson also announced that a new index, the RPI-J, would be published as of March 2013. The RPI-J will use a geometric formulation, known as the ‘Jevons’ formula, for items where the ‘Carli’ is currently used (around 27% of the total).
 
The announcement follows a consultation launched last year to specifically address the gap between the estimates produced by the RPI and the Consumer Prices Index (CPI).
 
The national statistician also made it clear that the ONS will continue to pursue its research programme in the area of consumer price statistics working with users. This has been particularly welcomed by the RSS in its response to the announcement. The ONS has been carrying out an extensive research programme into the issue since 2011 and the RSS feels it is particularly important that this continues, stating: ‘The formula effect generally, and particularly in the case of clothing, is dependent not just on the choice of index but also on the characteristics of the price movements and levels being measured, sample design, choice of base period and price collection methods.’
 
The RSS also welcomes the UK Statistics Authority decision to review the governance arrangements and structures supporting the production of price indices to ensure that these statistics best meet user needs in the future.
 
The national statistician has also recommended that an alternative data source be used to measure private housing rents from February 2013 RPI indices (published on 19 March 2013). This change is subject to consultation with the Bank of England and the chancellor of the exchequer.
 

 
Reactions to the announcement (added 15 January 2013)
 
The announcement was a surprise to many commentators, some of whom acknowledged the benefit of keeping RPI the same. In his Financial Times column, David Keohane wrote that the decision was ‘an understandable one, if only because consistency has a definite and obvious merit.’
 
The move was also welcomed by those in the pensions sector. Ian Cowie, head of personal finance at the Telegraph, commented: ‘The ONS has demonstrated its independence and delivered good news for private sector pensioners. This should also be a good day for the price of linkers in the bond markets.’
 
However, there have also been critics. Stephanie Flanders, economics editor at the BBC commented: ‘Britain’s Office for National Statistics has decided, when it comes to inflation, it’s better to be consistent than to be right.’
 
Chris Giles, economics editor of the Financial Times and who serves on the Consumer Prices Advisory Committee, was also disappointed by the announcement. ‘This decision means the UK remains with a central statistical measure that is deficient.’ he remarked in his column.
 

New director at the NCETM

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The National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics (NCETM) has announced the appointment of Charlie Stripp, current chief executive of Mathematics in Education and Industry (MEI), as its new director.
 
He takes up the post as a part time secondment, thus enabling him to continue his role at the MEI which is one of the NCETM’s consortium partners in developing a CPD programme for maths teachers. Other consortium partners are Tribal, MyScience, and the Institute of Education, University of London.
 
Stripp succeeds Professor Celia Hoyles OBE, who will step down in March 2013 after more than five and a half years’ service. She congratulated Stripp on his appointment and said the NCETM would ‘benefit greatly’ from his experience.
 
 

New Significance board editors

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Significance magazine
Stephen Senn, Idris Eckley, Allan Reese and Michael Wallace have all been appointed to the editorial board of Significance, the bimonthly magazine of the Royal Statistical Society and the American Statistical Association.
 
Stephen Senn is a former vice president of the RSS (until 2011) where he was responsible for external affairs. He is currently based in Luxembourg, where he works at the Competence Center for Methodology and Statistics at CRP-Santé in Luxembourg, a publicly funded health care research institute. Prior to that he was a professor of statistics at the University of Glasgow. His research interests cover the design and analysis of clinical trials, ethics, meta analysis and reporting and analysing safety data. He also undertakes consultancy work in these areas.
 
Dr Idris Eckley has been a senior lecturer at Lancaster University since August 2007. Prior to that, he worked as a statistical consultant at Shell and completed his PhD at the University of Bristol. Idris is currently deputy director of the STOR-i Doctoral Training Centre and a visiting fellow of the statistics group at the University of Bristol. His primary research interests lie in the development of multiscale methods for the analysis of non-stationary time series and images.

Hal Varian’s ‘Statistics at Google’ talk now available to view

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At its conference last year, the RSS hosted a talk by Google’s chief economist, Hal Varian.
 
Footage of his talk is now available to view here.
 
In his talk, Hal outlined how statistics are used at Google in a number of areas, what kind of skills Google finds valuable, and what the future might hold for data analysis in technology-intensive industries.
 
The talk is one of a number of sessions at the conference filmed by the RSS. Footage of other sessions will be uploaded on the RSS conference website in due course.
 
 
 
 

Nuffield study provides further support for new post-16 mathematics qualification

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The Nuffield Foundation has further reinforced the growing consensus that a new mathematics qualification should be introduced for those not studying maths A level in England.
 
Towards universal participation in post-16 mathematics: lessons from high-performing countries’ follows last month’s publication of two reports by ACME, the Advisory Committee for Mathematics Education, which also proposed a new ‘problem solving’ based maths qualification to combat England’s poor participation in maths post-16.
 
The Nuffield study recommends that such a qualification should focus on ‘mathematical fluency, modelling and statistics’ and be built into requirements for higher education in order to encourage take-up. It also recommended that GCSE Mathematics should remain compulsory until students have achieved a satisfactory grade (as previously recommended by 2011’s Wolf report).
 
By comparing maths education in England with Scotland, the USA, Germany, Hong Kong, Singapore and New Zealand, the report also noted that in countries where maths was compulsory at this age, it was never the only subject to be so and recommended that other subjects, such as English language, also be made compulsory.
 
It also looked particularly favourably at post-16 education in New Zealand. ‘While we should be careful of the danger of ‘cherry-picking’ policies from other countries, the evidence from New Zealand shows that it is possible to increase participation by providing an alternative pathway, focused on statistics, that is widely recognised and valued by higher education and employers,’ said Josh Hillman, director of education at the Nuffield Foundation.
 
Professor Jeremy Hodgen, who led the study, emphasised the importance of consulting the relevant stakeholders – notably higher education, employers, schools and colleges – in order for the new qualification to be valued. He also warned: ‘It’s important not to underestimate the timescale necessary for change, particularly if we are to address the critical shortage of mathematics teachers.’
 
Roeland Beerten, director of public affairs at the RSS, welcomed the report. ‘It is encouraging to see further evidence for the need to develop a qualification which teaches problem solving through statistics,’ he said. ‘It will be important, however, to ensure the qualification will meet a genuine and universally acknowledged need in higher education and employment.
 
‘The RSS is currently conducting research funded by the Actuarial Profession which looks at the requirements for statistical skills across a range of subjects in higher education and employment and the results of this work will be able to provide further insight on how such a qualification can be made as relevant as possible.’
 
The Nuffield study is a follow-up to their earlier report from 2010, ‘Is the UK an outlier?’, a study of mathematics education in 24 countries which has been highly influential in recent debates around post-16 maths education.
 

Free access to Significance app for the International Year of Statistics

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Significance magazine will be free to access on tablets and smartphones throughout 2013 via its app, to mark the International Year of Statistics.
 
The Significance magazine app, which is free to download for both iOS and Android platforms, will allow free digital access to all six issues of the magazine during 2013.
 
‘This offer is a great opportunity for non-members to access the content of Significance magazine,’ said Nicola Emmerson, operations director at the RSS. ‘We would urge all members to pass it on to any non-members who might be interested in reading it.’
 
The first issue of 2013 is due out in early February, but users can download the app for free at any time before then. App users can access previous issues (although some of these will be charged at £1.99 to non-members).
 
Significance is the bimonthly magazine and website of both the Royal Statistical Society and the American Statistical Association. It demonstrates, in an entertaining and thought-provoking way, the practical use of statistics and show how statistics benefits society.
 
RSS members will continue to receive the hard copy magazine as part of their annual subscription. Web-exclusive articles, also free for all to access, will continue to be published on the Significance website.
 

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