The Royal Statistical Society’s been in the data business now for a hundred and eighty years. We love working with ODI, who’s been around for three years, because we find we’re saying the same thing with different voices, with the same agenda.
For the RSS, the data agenda’s absolutely embedded in our history. Charles Booth was one of our early presidents, mapping where poverty lay side by side with wealth in London. Florence Nightingale was our first female fellow, mapping how disease was spreading in hospitals in the Crimea. And we’ve been thinking at the RSS about how can data help support prosperity. How can it help support democracy? And how can it help support better policy?
And our answer was this, our little Data Manifesto. It’s got ten recommendations, and it I don’t have time to take you through all of them in detail in the that time that I’ve got. But I wanted to give you the headlines. If you drop me an email or tweet me, I’m very happy to send you a copy of it. And here we’re talking about the full range of the data spectrum that has been described earlier. Let me pick out five key themes that really come out of the Data Manifesto.
The first is to invest to create and get the data that we need. And this particularly means investing in science, and research, and development. As a country, we’re falling behind in this area at the moment, compared to other countries. And this is really the source of long-term prosperity. Now, good science does need to be open science. We’re seeing an increasing problem about the reproducibility of science. If you actually re-run experiments, you’ll find that you can’t get them to give the same results that you got the first time round. So the data must be open, and we must encourage people to reproduce the results of science. That’s gotta be the quid pro quo, but we’ve got to invest in the first place.
Similarly, government data. If we’re going to change the way the government takes its approach to learning about the world that we live in and the society we are, we need to invest in good-quality statistics and data gathering. One example of that is the census. The government has committed to changing the way we do the census by 2031, going away from the old model which is gathering data once every ten years, to moving to much more real-time data from your driving license applications, from your GP records, and so on. But to make that switch, we’re going to have to have investment and a new way of thinking.
The second is to open the data. I’m not going to say too much about that, because you already bought into this idea. But let me just pick out a few things which perhaps haven’t been talked about so much. The first is private sector data. The private sector’s got a critical role to play. When we talk about open data, we’re often talking about opening up government data. But actually the private sector is holding more and more important dates which needs to be opened up.
One of the areas the RSS has been campaigning is around pharmaceutical companies. We’ve been working with the AllTrials group which Ben Goldacre set up, looking at can we make sure that pharmaceutical companies register their trials so that actually you know the results that you’re getting from pharmaceutical trials are not skewed towards the positive. Every trial is registered and open.
Similarly, as we’re finding more and more private sector companies are delivering public services, we’re not holding them necessarily to the same standards in terms of their accountability around data. So schools, hospitals…if it’s a private sector company, our view is that they’ve got to be held to the same data standards as the public sector.
And one other thing I’d pick out, which I haven’t heard the open data community say enough about is the recent threats to the Freedom of Information Act. That the government has set up a new FOI commission to review the Freedom of Information legislation. Hilariously, the FOI commission is not FOI-able itself. The first meeting that it gave, journalists had to redact various things because they couldn’t even say who was giving the information to them. So, this slightly Kafkaesque picture I think needs the open data community to intervene and show that open data sits side by side with freedom of information.
So, I’ve talked about investing to get the data, opening up the data. The third thing is that you’ve got to have the skills to analyze the data. And so, sometimes we, the data kind of geek community, forget that what people want is not data. They want answers. And actually, to go from data to answers, you need really good analytical, statistical skills.
We asked MPs, “If you toss a coin twice, what are the chances of getting two heads in a row?” And the answer of course is 25%. Only 40% of them could announce that question correctly. Say you know, these are the people that are having to make decisions at country level on our behalves all the time. And their data skills and not necessarily where they should be.
So, off the back of that, we ran a campaign in the run up to the election. We asked our six thousand members to write to their candidates and say, “If you get elected, do you promise to take statistical training from the Royal Statistical Society?” Three hundred candidates said yes. Of them, fifty-five got elected. And only a couple of weeks ago on World Statistics Day (yes, such a thing exists) we held our first training session for a batch of MPs. And they were delighted. Because it wasn’t about telling them “this is what you’re doing wrong.” It was saying, “We need to inoculate you against the lobbyists and the kind of bewildering numbers that you’re going to come across. Most of you dropped maths at 16. Data is scary for you. Let’s open that up and let’s build you confidence.”
But it can’t just be about MPs. We’re trying to work with the policy community. And we’re working right the way through the school of education system, and university level as well. Data analytics is the future of our economy and of society, and we’ve got to make sure we’ve got the skill base to inform that.
The fourth area we’ve we stressed is to actually use the bloody data to inform decision-making. And it’s a scandal how little this happens. Government has made a couple of steps forward in this area. I think the What Works Centres, which are actually looking at bringing together the data that we have in particular areas and bringing them together with the policymaking community has been a really positive step forward. But this is in only small areas. So, open doesn’t end with opening up the data. The next step is to then shove it in the people’s faces and say, “What’re you going to do with it? This is what the evidence tells us.”
And finally, we need institutions to create trust. Every week in the news now, we have TalkTalk, Ashley Madison, whatever it might be. Now, these are not necessarily about open data, but as we already know, our personal data, very important to us, is actually… The scandal surrounding some of this, and the concerns that people have around their privacy, has the ability to actually bring down the open data agenda because in most people’s minds, these agendas are not separate.
And so we have to have a robust institutional framework to give people the confidence. We did some research about a year and a half ago showing what we said was a data trust deficit. If you ask anybody how much they trust any institution, and then how much they trust that institution with their personal data, it’s always lower. So there is this gap around personal data, which is critical. And if we don’t address that level of trust, all of the wider initiatives that we have will skupper.
So, that was a very quick ground tour. But if you want to know more, our Data Manifesto is on the RSS web sites. We are campaigning for a better society based on good use of data, and I hope that— If you’re interested, we’re open, an open body. You don’t have to be a statistician. You just tough to care about data. So, you’d be very welcome to join us in our campaign. And we work very closely with the ODI in taking all of this forward. Thank you very much.