4. Clear and Insightful

Statistics and data should be presented clearly, explained meaningfully and provide authoritative insights that serve the public good.  

The profile of statistics and data has arguably never been higher. Discussions in the family virtual call or in the queue for the now-open coffee shop often cover the local COVID-19 case numbers. The now weekly No. 10 coronavirus press briefings present data and statistics on the COVID-19 pandemic in England and the UK (where available). There are also similar briefings for the devolved administrations. 

One example where the UK statistical system has responded positively to this demand and interest is through the coronavirus (COVID-19) UK dashboard, developed and maintained by Public Health England. This dashboard enables all types of users to access data and statistics to help compare trends across the UK or enable individual members of the public to understand the situation in their local area.

 

Case Study 6: The coronavirus (COVID-19) UK dashboard

The coronavirus (COVID-19) UK dashboard is the official UK government website for epidemiological data and insights on coronavirus (COVID-19). The dashboard was developed at the start of the pandemic to bring together information on the virus into one place to make it more accessible. Initially it presented information for the UK as a whole and for the four UK countries individually. Over time it has developed so that data are now available at local levels.

The dashboard is one of strongest examples of open data and statistics being used by a huge number of individuals from a wide range of backgrounds ‚Äď it is designed for the public but is used by leaders across government and the healthcare sector alike. To this end it aims to present information in a clear and coherent manner so that it can be understood by the broadest range of users possible. It is constantly evolving to continue to better meet users‚Äô needs and the team carry out in depth user research and surveys to improve and develop the dashboard.

As the dashboard has developed, so has the metadata to accompany it and it is now very comprehensive. Public Health England has also produced a simple summary for the UK which presents the main information in a concise manner. The dashboard now presents a great breadth of information from several sources across all four administrations of the UK. The dashboard application programming interface (API) is widely used and an exemplar for the provision of open data across government.

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We have also seen other examples of the statistical system proactively responding to address user needs for both new data and enhanced insight during the pandemic. For example, as mentioned earlier, HMRC analysts have actively sought to answer society’s key questions about economic changes in a timely way through the preparation, production, and publication of new statistics on its Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) and its Self-Employment Income Support Scheme (SEISS). And the ONS has adapted its Opinion and Lifestyles Survey (OPN) to provide new insights on the social aspects of the pandemic, through its Coronavirus and the Social Impacts on Great Britain publication.

Case Study 7: Social insights from the Opinions and Lifestyles Survey

The ONS has adapted its Opinion and Lifestyles Survey (OPN) to provide new insights on the social aspects of the pandemic, through its Coronavirus and the Social Impacts on Great Britain publications. The OPN previously operated as a monthly telephone and online survey of British households, providing timely and relevant insights to its users. During the pandemic, it became an important source of information for understanding the social impact of the pandemic.

From 20 March 2020, some of the OPN’s survey questions were changed to reflect changing circumstances and priorities. Since then, estimates measuring the impact of the pandemic on people, households and communities in Great Britain have been published on a regular basis.

With a user group of a wide range of government departments, academics and charities providing input into the questions asked, the survey has been used to rapidly and flexibly provide information on areas of user interest, such as people’s:

  • compliance with government measures to stop the spread of COVID-19
  • experiences of home-schooling and working from home
  • well-being and attitudes towards vaccination as the pandemic has progressed.

 

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We have also seen the increasing use of blogs to explain to users how the pandemic has affected data collection, changes to methodologies and help provide an overview of the information available about the pandemic. For example, ONS blogged about the impact of the pandemic on the Labour Force Survey and measuring the labour market. The Scottish Government has blogged about analysis and data around COVID-19 available for Scotland.

With the increasing interest in data and statistics we have also seen the increasing profile of statisticians. The National Statistician has regularly appeared on news programmes, for example on the Andrew Marr show in June 2020. Experts, including analysts, have been given authority to provide transparent and independent insights to increase public confidence in official evidence. Statisticians from ONS have directly communicated their statistics and responded to questions about them through a variety of media channels. One journalist we spoke with commented positively on Twitter engagement by ONS statisticians over the past year and how it made it easier to check things to ensure the journalist referred to the statistics accurately.

While direct contact with the media is an approach that should be more widely supported by government organisations, statisticians have also found other ways to support wider communication, for example through blogs, speaking at conferences, and making use of social media.

Case Study 8: Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) COVID-19 press briefings

NISRA statisticians introduced press briefings to explain their statistics on weekly deaths due to COVID-19.

The NISRA Vital Statistics Unit identified the need to work across teams to ensure their messaging was reaching the press. The statistics team embedded two members of the Press Office within the statistical production team for the weekly death statistics. In collaboration with the Press Office, a statistical press notice was developed alongside the statistics. The Press Office organised a closed, virtual, media briefing which gave NISRA statisticians a vital opportunity to talk through the statistics and associated definitions in a controlled environment. The first briefing was attended by around 35 members of the media.

These were very successful events and had a notable impact on improving the media‚Äôs understanding and subsequent accuracy in reporting. It has also enabled a closer working relationship to develop between NISRA statisticians and journalists and for members of the press to understand and appreciate the complexities of the statistical production process. Due to the success of these events the approach has been embedded by the Vital Statistics Unit as a more ‚Äėbusiness as usual‚Äô part of the statistical dissemination process, with the most recent event in with the most recent event in December 2020 covering the release of the ‚ÄĮCovid-19 related deaths and pre-existing conditions in Northern Ireland report.

Case Study 9: Welsh Government Chief Statistician’s blog

The Welsh Government Chief Statistician’s blog is a regular platform for the Chief Statistician for Wales to speak out on statistical matters. The Chief Statistician uses the channel to champion the work of Welsh statisticians, provide clarity on planned developments, and provide guidance on the correct interpretation of a range of statistics about Wales. This open communication approach keeps users and the wider public informed on the latest statistical developments.

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However, while progress has been made, data and statistics are not always presented in enough granularity to truly aid analysis and understanding of a societal issue. For example, it took longer than it should have for vaccine data to include ethnicity breakdown, and some age breakdowns. Additionally, as we noted in our Review of statistical leadership, government departments may benefit from supporting statisticians and other analysts to more routinely engage directly with the media, for example through speaking directly to journalists or through press briefings for key statistics. This would promote better understanding among journalists which in turn would lead to better reporting and enhance public confidence in the statistics and decisions which draw on these.  

Looking to the future

The UK statistical system should continue to improve its communication and presentation of statistics and data, adding real insight. It has been positive to see an increased profile of statisticians in the media and more direct engagement with the media and we would like to see this supported in the future. Statisticians and analysts across government should have greater freedom to engage openly about data and statistics and their limitations, both within and outside government. There have been good examples of adding insight and we would like to see this good practice shared widely. Over the next year, we will reiterate our expectations of producers to provide more granular data, including data broken down by key characteristics and geographies. It is important that statistics reflect society and that people can see themselves in the statistics available. 

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