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Statistics transformation programme – making data show its story

We launched a transformation programme in early 2017 to refresh our statistical releases. The objectives were to make our statistics more engaging, informative and targeted to different types of users.

Ofqual is the regulator of qualifications, examinations and assessments in England. Our statistical releases give a picture of the education landscape in the country. Our users range from the Parliament to public and includes government departments such as the Department for Education and Ofsted, awarding organisations, research bodies, schools and colleges, teachers, parents, learners and media.

Due to reforms in GCSEs and A levels, the content of a number of our publications needed updating. Our transformation programme therefore focused on refreshing both the design and content of the publications.

We studied the statistical releases of a few other departments who had implemented similar initiatives and are thankful to the DWP for providing advice and resources for our transformation programme. Smaller departments such as Ofqual can benefit from the larger departments in more ways than one.

HTML or PDF?

We explored the possibility of moving towards HTML publications instead of PDF documents. However, we found out that there were some challenges in publishing HTML documents on GOV.UK. For instance, not all kinds of images and graphics could be embedded in HTML documents currently on GOV.UK. Or needed some workaround. There were also concerns on version control of HTML documents. So we decided to carry on with PDF documents, with the provision of carrying on exploring the HTML route.

Types of users

We used three user personas used by the ONS for designing our new statistical releases. The aim was to provide headline statistics for the ‘information foragers’, more granular data for ‘expert analysts’ and visual stories for ‘inquiring citizens’.

We have also started to publish interactive visualisations to enable users to explore data in a more engaging and transparent manner (for more information on our interactive visualisations see this GSS blog).

Headline statistics

We focused on publishing more granular data and ready-to-use headline statistics in order to make our releases more transparent and easy to use as well as less susceptible to misinterpretation. We believe that this approach aligns with that given in the UK Statistics Authority’s Business plan 2016-2020 which aims to focus “on the release of data, metadata and key headlines, moving away from traditional ‘statistical bulletins’ and static publications whenever appropriate, informed by users.”

For instance, we have been able to minimise duplication of content between our quarterly release on vocational qualifications and our annual qualifications market report after reconfiguring both the publications based a user consultation held in 2017. Both the statistical releases have now been published in a new format. The quarterly release is now presented as tables and charts along with headline trends in spreadsheets instead of a PDF report, accompanied by granular datasets. This has helped us avoid repeating a large amount of text every quarter in the main report. The users now see visual output and a summary of the main trends. We have also ended up saving a considerable amount of time needed for producing the reports every quarter which we are now able to spend on improving the quality of all statistical releases. The new spreadsheets are nearly 100% automated using R.

Visual vs text

Presenting information visually has been more challenging than writing text. It needed more experimentation, creative thinking and discipline. Each chart and table needed multiple revisions. It was not always possible to get the right structure or colour or font in the first attempt. Small improvements count.

Visual presentation required more time, resources and perseverance. And I am proud of our team for working hard to deliver the new publications. We now have a better understanding of how different types of charts and tables work. The experience we have gained over the past one year or so should make things smoother for us in future in designing visual outputs.

User feedback

The feedback we have been receiving from our users on the new publications has been very encouraging. One user from a research body commented:

I thought your presentation of the Annual Qualifications Market Report was informative, interesting, and presented in a lively, clear and engaging way.

It is satisfying to know that we have added value to user experience. A number of our new look graphics are being simply copied and pasted in different media articles, which we take as a complement.

End+

The last of our refreshed statistical releases is due to be published shortly. As we approach towards the end of the transformation programme, I intend to carry on challenging us in refining and building trust in our statistics and data outputs. We are moving towards automation of our statistical releases using R and I look forward to working with other departments for this initiative.

Please see one of our publications before and after the transformation.

Click here to see all our statistical releases.

Vikas Dhawan – Head of Profession for Statistics, Ofqual

Ami Treharne