Public Services > Central Government

ONS opens new Data Science Campus

David Bicknell Published 27 March 2017

Office for National Statistics operation created in wake of Bean Review to beef up existing statistics-gathering by harnessing new data sources and technologies

 

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) is today launching a new Data Science Campus at its Newport HQ as part of a £17m investment in statistics to harness new data sources and technologies.

The investment, which has been funded by the Treasury, will provide statistics for policy makers and businesses about the fast-moving UK economy and society.  It follows the conclusions of the Bean Review , which called for a shake-up of data collection, saying the UK “significantly lags” behind many other advanced economies in its exploitation of administrative data (information held within the public sector but obtained for purposes other than the construction of statistics).

It said, “This reflects both the cumbersome nature of the present legal framework governing the sharing of such data and a cultural reluctance on the part of some departments and officials to data sharing. There should be a presumption that all publicly-held data is available to ONS for the purpose of producing economic statistics, except where there is a strong reason not to, for example for reasons of national security.”

Creating a new national data science resource is part of the ONS’s ongoing programme of work to meet the challenge of providing richer and more real-time statistics to inform decision makers.

Speaking at the Campus launch today, National Statistician John Pullinger is expected to call on the Data Science Campus to innovate with new methods and data sources, to provide opportunities to improve existing statistics and develop new outputs by working across government, industry, academia and charities in the UK and internationally.

“The wide range of training and learning programmes which the campus will offer will also be central to building data science capability across the UK. Through these actions, the Campus will help us realise our vision of better statistics for better decisions,” he will say.

The campus’ managing director is Tom Smith. Ahead of the launch, Smith said, “The Campus will be at the forefront of data science in the UK and beyond. Part of the ONS, the Campus will act as a hub and incubator for data science, collaborating with organisations across the UK and internationally on data science for public good. We are excited about the enormous potential to build a new generation of tools and technologies. It means we can maximise the insight that the growth and availability of innovative data sources is making possible. “

Plans for the Campus were first announced last spring as part of ONS’s ongoing plans to develop the statistical information it provides.  The Campus will work on projects within five themes, under the collective title of People, Planet and Prosperity. These themes are:

  • Evolving economy
  • Urban and rural
  • Society
  • Sustainability
  • UK in a global context

The Data Science Campus is expected to work with national and international partners from academia, government and business to deliver joint research programmes and to build UK data science capability, including providing funding opportunities for PhD candidates. As part of this the ONS has set up the first UK Data Analytics apprenticeship scheme and is planning more opportunities to train people in these skills that are so important for the UK’s decision-makers.

The work of the Data Science Campus is likely to step up the way that ONS develops and generates data to aid understanding of the economy and wider society across the UK. That matches ONS’ own remit to produce statistics for the public good.

The Bean independent review of UK economic statistics, published a year ago, made some criticism of ONS’ performance, particularly over its use of alternative data sources. The work coming out of the Data Science Campus is expected to make a concerted effort to put that right.

The Bean Review said, “The overwhelming primary source of information for ONS’s economic statistics is regular surveys of businesses and households, with around one and half million survey forms dispatched annually. Relatively little use is made of administrative data, such as that held by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) and still less of other (and growing) sources of big data. That is in stark contrast to some other NSIs, such as those of Canada and Scandinavia, which rely far more heavily on such information in constructing their economic statistics. In large part, the limited exploitation in this country reflects the cumbersome legal framework governing the use of such information for statistical purposes. “

Bean recommended that ONS should

  • Exploit new methods for collecting data and explore the scope for using information gathered by private sector entities in the production of economic statistics, nowcasting and one-off studies of emerging measurement issues.
  • Ensure ONS’s technology and data systems are capable of supporting the flexible exploitation of very large data sets.
  • Build ONS’s capacity to clean, match and analyse very large datasets, including through the recruitment of a cadre of data scientists.
  • Establish a new centre for the development and application of data-science techniques to the production of economic statistics.

Look out for an interview to be published shortly with the new Data Science Campus managing director Tom Smith








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