RSS Merseyside Local Group Meeting: Communicating statistics

On 18 December 2019, the RSS Merseyside Local Group hosted an event based on communicating statistics with speakers focusing on communication to the general public and to the media. The meeting had around 40 attendees, approximately a third of whom were RSS members. The event attracted people from a range of institutions including Public Health England, the Health and Safety Executive, and the Universities of Manchester and Liverpool.

The meeting began with a talk from Jamie Sergeant (University of Manchester), whose approach to communicating statistics is that 'if you can’t think of a way to make this interesting for 30 lower-middle set Year 8s, then you’re going to be eaten alive' and stems from a previous career in teaching. He discussed the ‘Cloudy with a chance of pain’ research study that he is involved in, which aims to test for an association between the weather and chronic pain conditions, such as arthritis. This study produced a smart phone app, allowing participants to record their pain levels daily and to link this information to their location and therefore to local weather conditions.

The success of this study relied on large numbers of the general public downloading and using the app, and it was media involvement that encouraged people to participate. After being featured on the BBC show ‘Trust me I’m a doctor’, BBC Breakfast, and lots of local radio shows they recruited over 12,000 participants from across the UK who collectively recorded over 5 million measurements. Jamie presented the in-depth communication plan used in the study which included who to contact, including members of the public and press organisations, and when. He discussed the difficulty of maintaining media and participant interest while analysis was on going, and their strategy of releasing preliminary results to participants.   

This was followed by a talk from Jen Rogers (PHASTAR) who has appeared on the BBC Watchdog programme as an expert statistician and regularly gives talks in schools and to the general public. She discussed how she developed her ‘living is a risky business’ talk, getting feedback of friends and collegues and building it up gradually. Important lessons she has learnt along the way include the importance of keeping the talk personal, how to encourage audience participation, and being very careful what wording you use in front of a theatre full of teenagers.

Both Jamie and Jen are part of the first cohort of RSS Stats Ambassadors. These are groups of volunteers who are trained to communicate and discuss statistics with the media and general public. Jen was also the 2014 RSS Guy Lecturer who delivers a lecture on statistics to schools.

The next meeting of the RSS Merseyside local group will take place on 11 March 2020, with RSS president Professor Deborah Ashby talking on 'Pigeon-holes and mustard seeds: Growing capacity to use data for society'.

Further details of this, and all future talks, are available on the Merseyside local group website:

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