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!
The recent political coming and goings (the EU referendum, the arrival of a new Prime Minster and Labour’s travails) has seen a period of unusual attitudes to facts. More people seemingly want information and yet the (accurate) use of facts by politicians, some elements of the media and quite a few people has fallen to new lows. Experts are being rubbished, institutions’ reputations are being damaged, and the media is accused of being biased, prompting discussion of a post-truth society. There is much talk of a fractured Britain as technology and globalisation have hastened economic disruption affecting many livelihoods.
This note sets out a few steps – go local, kill the average, be open, do good research, un-spin and tell good stories – that the statistics world might take to help people reconnect with reality and help policy makers understand what might be needed if we are to establish a more sensible approach to debate and policy. It has much in common with the Data Manifesto published by the Royal Statistical Society two years ago. Continue reading Post-truth, post-Brexit statistics
Yesterday I wrote about the launch of the new ONS house prices series. One huge risk was the announcement a week ago of the impending sale of the Land Registry, on whose data the new index would be based. The ONS refused to comment on this at their presentation (and the Land Registry representative was silent) fuelling concerns of those present. It seems, however, that all is not lost. The consultation document about the sale sets out to guard the data. Even so, those who lived through the loss of the PAF address register as part of the sale of Royal Mail will not be convinced that a deal can be struck until it is agreed. It seems that a purchaser is required to sign an open ended deal that would allow government to be in control of the data and set the rules about what is to be collected and how it is to be disseminated. Really? The Chancellor needs his money and a deal needs to be done ………. who has the best hand?
Fans of UK government open data were getting worried that the Cabinet Office’s enthusiasm for transparency was waning. (I wrote this a month ago.) Events of the last week suggest that all is not lost. It is quite plausible that the long period of silence from officialdom was caused by the spending review and other internal stuff, and nothing more sinister. It appears that key players have indeed been hard at work in government. Fingers crossed. As the government has acknowledged, on “openness” of all topics, there is a need for it to communicate with those outside. Continue reading Open data: re-engaging
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
The Cabinet Office Minister, Matt Hancock MP, spoke about data-driven government at the Open Data Institute (ODI) summit this week. It was in many ways an inspiring speech – it had an optimistic, positive tone and was full of ambition. It was, however, short on action and pledges. Against the background of government support for various groups linked to open data being withdrawn and concerns arising about the future of FoI, this glimpse of policy gives little hope of a much brighter future for open data. Continue reading The Minister’s speech – #opendata
What’s the difference between statisticians and data scientists in the context of the government statistical service (GSS)? There are differences in technical skills between the two but they can be bridged. The important difference might be more to do with the individual mindset of most data scientists and the organisational culture they seek – that might be the problem faced by the civil service when it comes to recruitment and retention. Continue reading Data scientist or statistician?
The Bean Review of government statistics will assess what the public sector data machine needs to make it fit for purpose for the next decade or two. The regulatory framework and outputs are part of that but at the core is a question about sources: how can big data, open data and administrative data help deliver more and new accurate statistics, in a more timely fashion and for less money. This note tries to unravel what these terms might mean for the Government Statistical Service (GSS). It concludes that there is an imperative to investigate the possibilities and that the Bean review can ensure that the required development work is supported at the highest level in government. Continue reading Big, open and admin – what’s what for government statistics?
The statistics community must shout loud in the debate about Freedom of Information reform or access to data could be set back a generation. There are accepted rules and practices relating to transparency and openness of data and the Government and civil service are on a path to fulfilling them.
The Government can achieve what it wants from its review of the Freedom of Information Act – to make a “safe space” and keep secret some advice it receives – while making the foundations on which policy is made more transparent.
The news of the review was, understandably, received negatively but there is hope for some positive outcomes. It is time for the UK Statistics Authority to lead. Continue reading FoI Commission – Good for Stats?