Government rejects recommendations regarding pre-release access to official statistics

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The Public Administration Select Committee has published both the government and the UK Statistics Authority responses to its report Public Trust in Government Statistics (opens as pdf).
 
One of the central recommendations of the report was to hand responsibility for pre-release access to statistics over to the UK Statistics Authority, arguing that current arrangements present a risk to public confidence in the independence of the statistical system. However, in its response, the government rejected this proposal, saying that pre-release access for ministers was necessary to allow ‘prompt commentary on statistics that is helpful in avoiding any misunderstanding in their interpretation’.
 
Bernard Jenkin, who chairs the Committee, called the response ‘offhanded’ in its brevity and urged the government to reconsider. ‘I rather suspect that such interpretation of and commentary on statistics is precisely what causes concern about them,’ he wrote. ‘It may be precisely the different explanations, “interpretations” of statistics that lead to the perception that statistics are worse than “lies and damned lies”’.
 
‘The Government should accept the advice of the Statistics Authority on pre-release access as a matter of policy and should legislate at the earliest opportunity to transfer responsibility for determining policy on pre-release access to them,’ he continued.
 
Mike Hughes, chair of the Society’s National Statistics Advisory Group, said that the RSS welcomes and endorses the response from Bernard Jenkin.‘The Royal Statistical Society has long since argued for the abolition, or near abolition, of pre-release access, as outlined its recent response to the PASC inquiry into statistics and their use in government,’ he said. ‘The Society believes that transferring responsibility for pre-release access from ministers to the UK Statistics Authority would improve trust in official statistics.’
 

MPs urge action to combat ‘spinning’ of statistics in departmental press releases

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The House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) has warned that government statistics press releases ‘do not always give a true and fair picture of the story behind official statistics’, in its report Communicating statistics: Not just true but also fair (opens as pdf).
 
‘Politicians tend to promote the statistics that best present their case. The numbers may be perfectly true but the act of selecting certain numbers distorts the true picture,’ said committee chairman, Bernard Jenkin MP. ‘In some cases, spinning reduces the story behind the statistics to such an extent that the picture is no longer true.’
 
The committee highlighted the importance of public trust in the statistics used in evidence for public policy to the broader issues of trust in the integrity of public policy and of government accountability.
 
PASC has recommended closer working between departmental press officers and government statistics staff to ensure that ‘press releases give an accurate and meaningful picture of the truth behind the figures’.
 
The committee also called for improvements to the Office for National Statistics’ web site, saying that ‘as well as being hard to find, statistics are often presented in a confusing way’. It also urged the UK Statistics Authority to find more creative ways of communicating statistics, such as interactive guides.
 
PASC backed the Authority’s role in monitoring the use and abuse of official statistics. ‘Where the Chair of the Statistics Authority judges that there has been misuse of official statistics, we support his independence and his right to intervene,’ Bernard Jenkin said.
 
The Royal Statistical Society has welcomed and endorsed the report, noting it reflects many of the Society’s long-held concerns (most recently set out in its submission to the PASC inquiry on communicating statistics).
 
Roeland Beerten, RSS director of professional and public affairs, commented that the Society endorses the report’s findings. ‘They reflect many of the Society’s long-held concerns in relation to the ease of access to official statistics, and the need for independent, clear and comprehensive comment,’ he said. ‘Although we recognise there have been some recent improvements in access and communication we welcome the report’s recommendations as they will help both expert users and the general public in finding the statistics they need.’
 

Testers needed for Office for National Statistics website

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The Office for National Statistics is looking for volunteers take part in an exercise to help it improve the way people access and navigate information on the ONS website.

The ONS is now reviewing the classifications on its website with a view to introducing a simplified version that is easier for users to access and understand. To this end, tests are being conducted with a range of ONS website users, and RSS members are welcomed to volunteer.
 
Tests will take place on the 17-19 June and 22-26 June 2013. Volunteers can test the site from home or a workplace with internet and phone access.
 
The test will take no longer than one hour, and time slots are being allocated through a booking system.
 
RSS members, and other interested parties, can volunteer by emailing Lisa Davies by 10 June 2013.
 
 
 

Stanford statistician wins Shaw Prize in Mathematical Sciences

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David Donoho, a professor of statistics at Stanford University, is this year’s recipient of the Shaw Prize in Mathematical Sciences.
 
The American Statistical Association member was honoured ‘for his profound contributions to modern mathematical statistics’. Donoho was also noted for his role in developing mathematical and statistical tools to deal with problems such as large data-sets in high dimensions to contamination with noise. ‘His work provides fast, efficient and often optimal algorithms which are founded on rigorous mathematical analysis,’ the judges commented.
 
The Shaw Prize honours six individuals who have achieved a significant breakthrough in academic and scientific research, or whose work has resulted in a positive and profound impact on mankind. Six individuals are honoured within three categories – astronomy, mathematical sciences, and life science and medicine. Each winner receives $1 million US dollars.
 
Run Run Shaw is a philanthropist who runs several foundations promoting education, scientific research, medical services and the arts. The Shaw Prize Foundation is based in Hong Kong and a presentation ceremony, scheduled for 23 September 2013, will mark its tenth year since inception.
 

Biographical details of nominations for election to RSS Council

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In the latest edition of RSS NEWS we communicated the names nominated by Council for election to fill the six vacancies for terms beginning in 2014.  Their biographies are now listed below.  
 
Fellows may still make other nominations if they wish and can contact the executive director for more information.
 

Society to co-host second debate on understanding statistics

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A second major policy debate on understanding statistics, run by the Royal Statistical Society, King’s College London and Ipsos MORI, is to be held on Tuesday 9 July 2013.
 
Titled ‘The Perils of Perception’, the lecture will this time examine how people’s understanding of the state of society is affected by personal experience rather than more objective evidence. It will also cover issues where public perceptions are out of step with the data – such as levels of crime, proportion of government money spent on overseas aid and benefit levels.
 
The meeting is chaired by RSS executive director Hetan Shah and speakers include Office for Budget Responsibility chair Robert Chote, BBC home editor Mark Easton, Jill Rutter of the Institute for Government, Professor Ken Young, programme director for Public Policy at King’s, and Bobby Duffy of Ipsos MORI.
 
The panel will address questions such as: Why do these perception gaps arise? Do they matter? If so, what can be done to better align public understanding with the facts?
 
The lecture starts at 6.15pm (drinks from 5.30pm) at the Safra Lecture Theatre, King’s College London, Strand Campus and a Q&A will follow the speakers. The event will be followed by drinks and canapés at 7.30pm. Anyone wishing to attend should register their interest first (click on the green ‘online booking’ button).
 
Those interested in commenting on the event using social media are asked to use the #perceptiongaps hashtag.
 

First Journal Club audio recordings now available

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The audio recordings of the Society’s first ever Journal Club teleconference, held back in April this year, are now available via the PSI website.
 
The event, held jointly between PSI Pharmaceutical Statistics and the RSS and sponsored by Wiley and Quintiles, was on topics relating to survival analysis. This session was chaired by James Carpenter of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and featured two authors, Abdus S Wahed of the University of Pittsburgh and Nicola Schmitt of AstraZeneca.
 
The webcast recordings, along with slides from the presentations, are available to listen to and view here. They are available in WMV, MP4 and MP3 (audio only) formats.
 
The next Journal Club, featuring authors Galit Shmueli and Ron Kenett, examines the concept of information quality ‘InfoQ’ as ‘the potential of a data set to achieve a specific (scientific or practical) goal by using a given empirical analysis method’. The paper, ‘On information quality’, is currently available to view here. Both authors will talk about the paper, its applications and related work.
 
PSI, which has been running its journal club for more than three years, is interested in feedback from readers to help determine the direction of future events. Visit www.psiweb.org/journalclub to be directed to the survey, which takes around five minutes to complete. The survey closes on 8 June 2013.
 

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