The media coverage of the results of the local elections (in May 2019) has at times been deeply misleading with voting outcomes not being accurately described. The problem is two-fold. First, the usual way of presenting the figures – in terms of seats, percentage share of the vote and swings – can give a very misleading impression. It has on this occasion as the usual metrics have been distorted by the plummeting turnout compared to 2015 (when the turnout was high due to the General Election). No one single summary statistic can be relied upon in all circumstances. Second, it is nigh on impossible to get the actual voting figures. The country deserves a central publication point for election data to allow anyone to do their own, neutral, assessment of the trends. The time has come for the UK to have more transparency about its election results – surely one of the most fundamental of all statistics – as befits a developed democracy. Without this, the voters are unlikely to get a fair sense of the results given much of the interpretation is being done by politicians or columnists skilful enough to select their factoids to suit their own story or others who are innumerate, wilfully or naively ignorant of the facts, or producing projections from black box models.
There was wonderful example of a “statistics meets news” car crash on the radio this morning. Take an interviewer who seems to be uncomfortable with numbers, poorly prepared by the editors/researchers, some statistics that were not published, presented by a lobby group that has not heard of open data or modern publishing standards, and you end up with an amusing but fundamentally totally groundless piece. People deserve better. The story about the demise of the bearded collie was classic #fakenews and was of little consequence but when the same standards of data spinning and innumeracy are applied to something important we all suffer. Continue reading Not the dog’s b*ll*cks!
Without wanting to engage in BBC bashing it must be said that this morning’s BBC Radio 4 Today programme had too many examples of sloppy use of data. There were school boy errors: focusing on the latest figure not the trend, comparing annual data to quarterly data, getting the number wrong, ignoring the impact of inflation when comparing figures over time, choosing the wrong denominator and flooding the debate with large but ultimately meaningless numbers. I am not a regular listener to the BBC’s flagship news programs but I hope they are generally better than this! Continue reading BBC and sloppy numbers
The gender pay gap is a sensitive, highly topical subject and the deadline is approaching for companies to report their data, often for the first time. It’s a shame then that the BBC article from their “data journalists” setting out to explain what’s happening, “Gender pay gap deadline: What to know“, misses some simple points and does little to help anyone who might be confused. The data is not complicated but there are various aggregate statistics in the public domain which are based on different definitions, and thus need to be used carefully and described clearly. Continue reading The BBC’s unhelpful article on the gender pay gap
The gender pay gap is one of the most misunderstood areas of British public policy statistics. The only question is the extent to which this is accidental or deliberate obfuscation by pressure groups. The UK Statistics Authority needs to step in to do its part in getting better data, better explaining the existing data it publishes and correcting those who misuse it. It is a shame that the respected IFS has added to the deluge of confusion with its latest report published today.
So far as the statistics are concerned, the pay gap is the average amount of money paid to men in work versus the average paid to women. So far as legislation is concerned, the pay gap is the difference between the pay of an equally qualified and experienced man and woman doing exactly the same job. Sadly the rhetoric swings happily between the two helping no one. Every time this blows up I simply wish for better data so that we can really understand the issue and put ourselves in a position where we can develop policies that will put an end to discrimination. Instead we get (mostly) ill-thought out hot air. Continue reading The scandal of the gender pay gap
The BBC and Wikipedia probably beat the official Rio website in terms of the data offering and presentation but it was also a feast for others interested in providing numbers, including the media, or browsing them. Here are some links, plus my summary table of the sequence of medal awards – this was valuable in tracking the rate of GB medals so as not to be blown off course by media during the event that (predictably) swung from gloom to over-hyped optimism. Continue reading Team GB, Olympics and stats
The relationship between open data and journalism is a complex one. No one questions the desirability of good journalism and the value of open data but both are under threat. British print circulation is falling, and for many titles by over 10% in a year and traditional revenue streams are under pressure. At the same time the momentum behind the British government’s open data movement shows signs of weakening as its impact is being questioned. They could help each other out. Harder stories based on real evidence (including open data) could make a contribution in halting the decline in journalism and open data. Sadly, in the UK, this seems unlikely to happen. If the private sector won’t seize the opportunity we should look to public sector broadcasting to set standards in quality and exciting journalism. Continue reading Open data and journalism
This blog proposes a change in the way the UK Statistics Authority operates. Pretty much anyone (outside UKSA) who has a view on the matter feels that it is not operating how it was envisaged at the time of the legislation. With very modest cost (and without revisiting the Act) the UKSA board could implement a structure with clearer responsibilities and greater effectiveness. The reinvigorated stakeholder relationships with enhanced transparency and trust would set up the government statistics machine to play a central role in producing data both for policy making and the public good. Statistics should be about so much more than producing the same figures as last year and the Bean review can point the service in that direction. Continue reading UKSA structure – change and deliver
The trade unions that operate at the ONS seem to have their focus on preserving their jobs and by doing so they risk losing the moral high ground. Looking back at a major intervention by the union in 2005, the workers showed that they can have their finger on the pulse. Then they correctly called the department’s troubles, rooted in political interference and poor leadership, that have engulfed the ONS in recent years and are only now being left behind. One can only hope that behind the public statements the unions are working to deliver the change that is required to ensure that the quality of the statistics rises to where it needs to be. That is the only way to preserve their jobs in the long run.
Continue reading The union and “job fears”
The rain was pouring down outside so Bank Holiday Monday was a good time to read the blog from Met Office Chief Scientist Professor Dame Julia Slingo OBE FRS in which she reflects on this summer’s weather. The title – “So what happened to our summer?” – gives away the sense of mild embarrassment about the poor predictions for July and August. The Met Office has lost the confidence of the BBC which has terminated the weather presenting contract. (This Met Office blog covers that and criticism of its apps.) Beyond the accuracy of its forecasting, I see evidence that the Met Office has confused governance, is not being very open with its data, not focusing on the public’s needs and opinions, setting itself lower targets for forecasting accuracy, and is becoming less transparent in its operations. Perhaps it’s no surprise that the organisation is being reviewed by Government, not least as they were given the go-ahead last year to spend £100m on a new computer. Continue reading Met Office – best in the world?