Today, 12 May 2020, marks 200 years since the birth of Florence Nightingale. At a time when the world is relying so heavily on nurses it has never been more appropriate to celebrate an individual who revolutionised the nursing profession by bringing about massive sanitation reform, and who showed great compassion caring for injured soldiers.
Perhaps less well known is her gift for mathematics and the way she used statistical information to influence Parliament and Civil Servants. She used data to help the government make informed decisions that would benefit society – very much in line with OSR’s vision of statistics that serve the public good.
Florence Nightingale was a highly respected statistician and pioneer in data visualisation, and the first female member of the Royal Statistical Society. She believed that good data was essential to understanding the impact and effectiveness of healthcare and sanitary provision, and is credited with developing new kinds of charts and diagrams, including the polar area diagram (or Nightingale Rose).
Nightingale understood that the statistics she was producing were not merely numbers – they were meaningful because each number represented a life lost, or a life that could be saved. She understood the humanity in the figures and wanted her discoveries and recommendations to be accessible to everyone.
As we seek to understand coronavirus we are again feeling the weight of the human suffering in each statistic and are once again turning to numbers for answers.
It is our belief that the work of statisticians should be held in high regard. We have seen statisticians innovating and adjusting to a rapidly changing environment in an effort to inform government decision makers and the public. It is our role as the Office for Statistics Regulation to highlight the public need for information and ensure that statisticians of today produce statistics which are accessible to everyone.
We want to see timely data being published transparently and explained clearly. In reviewing outputs, we are guided by the three pillars of the Code of Practice for Statistics: Trustworthiness, Quality and Value.
We have been working with producers of statistics to support their efforts and push for further developments. As the UK adjusts to rapid changes in society and the economy, organisations that produce official statistics are rightly showing flexibility and adapting what they collect and publish to respond to this new environment. We have seen new data sources developed and published at unprecedented pace, including health data (as outlined in our review of COVID-19 surveillance and registered deaths data) and more broadly, in outputs such as the Office for National Statistics’ Opinions and Lifestyle COVID-19 questions and Welsh Government’s publication on children’s attendance in local authority settings.
While there will always be improvements that could be made to data – and we will continue to champion these – we should not lose sight of the important role of data and statistics, and the efforts of statisticians both now and historically in allowing us to understand our world.
We can learn a lot from the tireless efforts of individuals like Florence Nightingale. Celebrating the bicentenary of her birth today offers an opportunity to celebrate her achievements and inspires us to continue to work towards statistics that can provide answers, assurance and a light at the end of the tunnel.