Poverty (of) statistics

Today was well spent at a wonderful event organised by the Royal Statistical Society, JRF and Resolution Foundation. But I was a bit depressed about it all as I went home. 

According to the blurb: “The conference will provide the opportunity to consider the information that is needed to understand and tackle poverty related issues in the UK, identify the current gaps in statistics about poverty related issues, and consider the statistics that should be prioritised accordingly.” It might not have delivered on the last point but the presentations and future debate will be found on the statsusernet boards. So register if you haven’t already.

My conclusions ……… On the plus side, it was clear that many people want new/better stats on poverty/society and that there are new data sources that could be used. But there are constraints: sadly perhaps, users want the same stats to come each year (even if lower response rates and other issues are causing quality problems in the eyes of anyone prepared to look), so many statistics are untouchable as they are specified under international obligations and budgets are being cut. So that leaves the billion dollar question: Will anything (ever) change for the better or are we just entering slow terminal decline in the range and quality of data? I have my fears.

Two points of detail.

1 – UKSA vision. As set out in the presentation, this mainly seemed to rely on “building on what’s there”, noting four principles:

  • serving the public good
  • using users as a resource
  • utilising new data
  • cultivating a spirit of curiosity

There’s nothing wrong with those but it doesn’t sound too pro-active or game changing. The vision statement published last October is here. Is that enough to deliver poverty statistics that are fit for purpose?

2 – Indices of multiple deprivation. These are due to be revised/updated in the summer. Two issues concerned me. First, while the indices are used and have attained some level of importance, they offer limited real understanding of an area. Certainly for a neighbourhood forum or someone trying to work in a space smaller than an LA the indices on their own are no aid. Second, I always worry when there’s a black box like this – lots of data goes in and you get an index out at the end. These concerns would be addressed by publication of the underlying data which, as things stand, we can’t access. While some data would be disclosive (and inappropriate to publish) why can’t DCLG insist on publication of what can be published? Credibility would be much higher if the figures were more open to scrutiny. In an era of open data, why are these numbers locked away – and contracts written, we are led to believe, to ensure they stay locked away.


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