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A nine goal thriller and the GSS conference

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I was pleasantly surprised at the speed of the journey from Newport to Sheffield. The first bit, to Bristol, went quickly as I was travelling with Julie Brown – who is moving from the Department for Transport to ONS – and Will Laffan – who heads the GSS Brexit team. The route from Bristol was a real mix of urban and rural but the tree colours were spectacular – autumn does seem late this year (do we have any statistics on that?).

The walk towards Sheffield Hallam University from the station was enjoyable, even though it was rather damp by then, and I arrived pretty much on time to meet Mike Jones for a bite to eat. Mike works at Department for Education, is a Sheffield resident and is currently doing a review of the role of GSS heads of profession. He was good company and we suddenly realised it was getting late and we ought to make a move.

He pointed me in the direction of the Sheffield United football ground and my hotel for the night. It was lucky that I did arrive a bit later than planned because Bramall Lane had just experienced a nine goal thriller with the home team losing 4-5. The crowds were thinning out but the bars were noisy and boisterous. For me it was time for bed.

The following morning all I had to do was to pop next door into the conference hall. A great set up for a gathering of 350 GSS colleagues. I was up first to welcome everyone, thank conference organiser Alex Miller and his brilliant band of volunteers and say a few words to introduce the theme for the event – pioneers: on the forefront of statistics and data science.

Everyone who was there will, I know, have their own highlights to take away. I also know that many who were not there were following on Twitter – it is a bonus that social media allows so many more people to get involved, including asking questions in the sessions – and could also get inspiration from what they heard.

My highlights from the opening sessions were: Ed Humpherson (Director General of the Office for Statistics Regulation) drawing out the principles of quality, trustworthiness and value that underpin the new Code of Practice and underscore the unique public service given by all of us working to deliver better statistics for better decisions; Tom Smith (Managing Director of the Data Science Campus) demonstrating how the Campus, still in its first year, is already providing valuable new insights and building stronger GSS capability; Tracey Brown, (Director of Sense about Science) reminding us all about the role we play in communicating statistics; Darren Barnes and Sam Hall (ONS) demonstrating how we are making it easier for users to find GSS data, complemented by Helen Colvin (ONS) taking about health statistics as a case study for a joined up approach amongst all statistics producers working in a “statistical family”.

These early sessions helped set the scene to hear some stories about how the application of new techniques is helping directly to improve lives. These are the stories that really motivate me in my role. Tom Wakeford (Home Office) showed how machine learning techniques are being used in real time to protect potential victims of trafficking when they arrive in the UK. Jo Lee (Ministry of Justice)showed how text mining can enable huge quantities of data from case notes to help understand mental well-being amongst prisoners. She made it real by describing how she used herself as a guinea pig to assess whether her model was doing better than a human could manage. Sandra Tudor and her team at DCLG told the story of the analytical work done in the immediate aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire – making sense of incomplete and changing information against hourly deadlines from Ministers to give a rapid yet evidence based response.

I also really liked Daniel Hulme (CEO of Satalia) with his rousing story about making sense of big data; David Spiegelhalter (RSS President) on why statistical literacy matters (with hilarious but terrifying examples of what can go wrong); Hannah Thomas (Welsh Government) giving a presentation on the work which won her the global young statisticians prize this year on the topic of communicating statistics to non-expert users (you should do a roadshow on this Hannah); and the final presentation on why data is revolutionary and can be used to ensure that no one in the world is left behind from Claire Melamed (Director of the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data).

That’s far too many highlights. Sorry about that. It just illustrates that our statistical community has a lot to celebrate. In the run up to Christmas we should celebrate that each of our jobs makes a special contribution to British public life. I am looking forward to hearing and sharing more statistical stories in 2018.

John Pullinger, National Statistician