How Alan Turing’s legacy is inspiring our work today

To coincide with his birthday, on 23 June 2021, the UK honoured the life and work of Alan Turing, one of its most famous mathematicians, by featuring his image on the design of its latest £50 note.

Although best known for his codebreaking work at Bletchley Park, Turing’s legacy goes far beyond his contributions during the war. Recognised by many as an early pioneer of modern computing, his work on algorithms, computing machinery and artificial intelligence have changed the way we live today.

The early 1900s was the start of a data revolution in the UK. Punch cards were being used to input data into early computers, and statistics and science were opening the door to a world of technological possibility. This time of rapid discovery and progress was of immense inspiration to Turing, who foresaw that automation and ‘computing machinery and intelligence’ would have a huge impact on the world and the way we live in it. In fact, the new £50 note features a quote from Turing saying, ‘This is only a foretaste of what is to come, and only the shadow of what is going to be.’

We at OSR use modern advancements in Turing’s work by applying Machine Learning methods to gather data on statistics from places like Twitter, Government websites, parliament reports and the media in order to support us in our regulatory work. This automation helps us to gather large amounts of important data, from a multitude of sources that we wouldn’t have been able to capture before. These techniques will allow us to find where and how statistics are being used in the public domain and help shape our future work.

But although we can see direct impacts of Turing’s legacy in how we conduct some of our own work, perhaps it is the attitude he had to his work that should inspire us more.

Turing was a pioneer in his field, not just because of his keen mind, but because of the way he approached problems with both intellectual bravery and pragmatism. He was not afraid of huge radical ideas, but he was also able to think of how they be used practically, for the betterment of humanity. The idea of public good was at the forefront of his work, helping him to approach old problems with a new, novel perspective.

Making the world a better place has always been a driver to mathematical and scientific discovery, and Turing was a great proponent of applying maths and statistics to solve real world problems. At Bletchley park and beyond, he was able to show the value of accumulating data and how important statistics are to making informed decisions. This type of thinking; calculating probabilities and using plausible reasoning to make decisions, has been a major influence on the way governments around the world have used data to tackle the coronavirus pandemic.

He spent a lot of his time theorising about the concept of intelligence and how it applied to both humans and machines, but even he knew his own intellectual limitations. In his pursuit of knowledge and answers, he often spoke with people from differing fields to his own, discussing problems with philosophers for example. He knew that collaboration only added strength to problem solving and that working together with others would lead to better outcomes.

It is impossible to discuss the life of Alan Turing without remembering that he was persecuted for being gay. Although applauded for his intelligence and work during the war, he was arrested because of his sexuality and forced to take experimental medications. He ended his own life soon after his conviction.

It would not be a huge stretch of the imagination to think that, had Alan Turing’s life not ended prematurely, he would have continued to make intellectual discoveries that would have further positively impacted the world today. It is also not hard to imagine that there are many other diverse, intelligent minds that should have equal chance to contribute to solving the world’s problems. Turing’s life should inspire us not only to new intellectual heights, but to stronger commitments to equality and diversity as well.

As a regulator of statistics, the links from our work to Turing’s are many. Not only do we use automation to help us gather and analyse large data sources, but we question the methodology and fairness behind algorithms and are also passionate collaborators, seeking input from others as an integral part of our processes rather than just an afterthought.

Just as Turing was driven to use mathematics to tackle real world problems and benefit humanity, the accurate use of data and statistics to make decisions for the public good is at the heart of everything we do. Going forward, not only will we continue to explore new ways in which automation can aid our work, but we will strive to collaborate with diverse minds, continue to teach the importance of transparency, quality and value and above all protect the public’s interest by making sure they have statistics they can trust.


Thank you to the Alan Turing institute whose talk, Breaking the code: Alan Turing’s legacy in 2021, helped inform the content of this blog. 

Automation and Technology: Getting the full picture

When you think about the Office for Statistics Regulation (OSR) you may initially think of us as a group of people who make sure that statistics are being used correctly, a ‘statistics watchdog’ of sorts. If you’re a producer of statistics, you might think about our Code of Practice, National Statistics Designation or the breadth of regulatory work that we do.  You might not think of the complementary work programmes we have alongside them to help deliver this regulatory function.

One of those work programmes is the Automation and Technology (A and T) work programme which looks at how we can automate some of the work we do at OSR to allow regulators more time to engage with the people they need to engage with. I was recruited in October last year as the Head of the A and T work programme and since then a lot has been happening that I’d like to share.

‘Automation’ is typically defined as a machine doing repetitive tasks without much human involvement and that makes it perfect for OSR’s horizon scanning and casework identification.

Horizon scanning is where our regulators look at what’s happening across the board for statistics within their topic area and casework includes looking into the potential misuse of statistics. If you think about where most of that information comes from, you’ll think of the web or social media platforms and that information can automatically be gathered using a social media scraper.

The first project the work programme started was to automate a statistical release calendar which would inform us of upcoming releases, added or removed publications and any changes made to release dates. It takes its information from the research and statistics page but the aim is to incorporate all statistical release calendars to get a full picture across all official statistics. It has proved most useful during the COVID-19 pandemic due to the volume of new statistics for us to keep track of.

Although being titled ‘Automation and Technology’, the work programme actually encompasses quite a bit of Data Science and Data Visualisation type work too. After data has been gathered from the web, data mining techniques are needed to structure the data into something usable. After that, meaning or insight needs to be extracted and a good way to do that is to use Natural Language Processing (NLP) which is the discipline within Data Science that deals with the analysis of text data.

Finally, the output of that analysis needs to be communicated to the user and love them or hate them, dashboards are a great way to visualise the output and keep everything in one easy access place for the user. One of my favourite data visualisation tools for Python, and particularly for creating interactive dashboards, is plotly’s Dash . Not only does it have lots of functionality, it’s not quite as tricky to code as other tools such as D3 and it integrates really nicely with cloud platforms such as Google Cloud Platform for deployment.

During the COVID-19 pandemic we’ve been busier than ever responding to concerns of misleading statistics and pulling together to produce Rapid Reviews of new or changing statistics. One of the ways the A and T work programme has been facilitating that is by creating a twitter dashboard which encompasses all of the above techniques to allow us to see what is being talked about around COVID-19 statistics. It runs every day and collects the tweets related to a provided search term and then mines the tweets to provide the top retweeted tweets, top hashtags, popular links and other useful metrics. The code is open source and can be found on our Github Page.


So, what’s in store for the future of A and T in OSR? Well, we have lots lined up in terms of coding projects. One such project will be looking at the impact we have with our interventions which will help inform the best way to intervene in future. We have also recently released a statement which describes work we are looking to carry out into what we need to do as an organisation to regulate the growing use of Artificial Intelligence technologies within official statistics.

If you have any comments on our planned work or anything relating to the A and T work programme at OSR, then please feel free to email me at