Statistics are vital: An interview with Alison Pritchard

'Statistics Are Vital’ is a joint campaign by the Royal Statistical Society and Significance magazine, celebrating the work of statisticians during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Significance spoke to Alison Pritchard, deputy national statistician and director general for data capability at the Office for National Statistics (ONS), in December 2021.

‘I want to be ready to answer questions we don't yet know we need to know. That's really what our data capability drive is

What does 'data capability' mean in the context of national and official statistics?
The data capability group is the end-to-end part of ONS responsible for data collection, data gathering, and data engineering. What I want to do is really shape the organisation around the data that's available to us, being quite creative and innovative with how we generate that data, and then making sure that data is used for whatever questions emerge. I want to be ready to answer questions we don't yet know we need to know. That's really what our data capability drive is.

For the early part of the pandemic, you were interim director general of the Government Digital Service (GDS). You joined ONS in October 2020, at which time Covid cases were rising again. To what extent did the pandemic shape your thinking about data capability requirements?
I think it was really helpful that I spent that time leading GDS. I was the person that the then cabinet secretary said, 'We need to get government working remotely overnight, go make it happen'. Looking at now, with us operating remotely, that doesn’t seem like a big deal. But back then it was, and we had to do that overnight, on that day back in March [2020] when we were all sent to work from home. So, unpacking the ability for technology to support us was one thing I was involved in right at the very sharp end.

Another reference that’s relevant is that GDS had a role to play in the Vulnerable People Service – the sending out of food parcels and priority of supermarket online spots to those who are medically clinically vulnerable. That was, I think, the first example of a service that operated purely through data. Data quality was an issue we had to overcome; data governance and legal gateways were really quite important to overcome – we were handling some very sensitive data. But, for me, it was an example where data can flow across boundaries where you absolutely need it to.

Can you talk about some of the work that the data capability teams have been doing in response to Covid?
I think the [Covid] business impact survey is a good example of where we've made changes to the way that we now work. We've been using things like automated information systems for shipping – which were designed for safety at sea – to analyse ship movements into and out of ports, etc. We're now seeking to gain information on manifest, loading and unloading, to be able to measure that activity at ports. We've been using imagery data, such as traffic cameras, to analyse traffic movements, and we've also been able to use mobility data to see where the footfall has been in certain places to look at [economic] recovery.

Public health is a good example, as well. We now have a public health data asset that we didn't have before, and we have it because we've had to work across boundaries. So, in the case of, for instance, providing analysis on the impact of Covid and vaccine hesitancy by ethnicity, that groundbreaking work came about because we're able to connect GP [general practitioner] data with death records, with census information, vaccine data, and now some opinion-related data as well. That's been able to give us insight at a more granular level. I think the [work on] Covid impact by ethnicity was groundbreaking because it helped influence policy quite directly on how we might go about targeting support.

So, those are examples of how we've been operating to support ONS, not merely as an enabling function but really as an output provider in our own right.

We now have a public health data asset that we didn't have before, and we have it because we've had to work across boundaries'

What have been the impacts of Covid on you and your teams? How has the pandemic shaped your professional lives?
Before I joined ONS, and before I was leading GDS, I was working on [Britain’s] EU exit in GDS, and that was the clear single priority that I was dealing with at that time. I think nationally, over the last 18 months, it's been very clear what the key single priority has been. So, from a positive perspective, [Covid] has allowed us to put other things aside and to say, 'We're throwing all our resource at this national challenge.'

It has meant things have been relentless. And success begat success. We've been generating some really important insight, the demand for that increases, the expectation and scrutiny means we have to work at 100%, day in, day out. And I think that's generated quite a lot of strain on the organisation. We're now trying to use this period – depending on what happens with omicron – to move back to a little bit more of a business-as-usual model, away from what you might describe as ‘crisis operations’.

What has kept you motivated through this difficult period?
Realising that what we're doing is of significant importance, genuinely so. I've been in jobs sometimes where you're wondering where the output will be and does anyone care. And I think it's quite clear to me personally [that] everyone can understand the value we're bringing and why we're doing it. And that feels worthwhile putting the effort in and continuing to work really hard.

The social, economic, health status of the nation has never been more important, and net zero, jobs and growth, levelling up – for all of these key priorities, we have an important role to play. That's what keeps me going.

Finally, how would you summarise the contributions made by statistics and statisticians in tackling this global health emergency?   
It's been their moment of glory. I think the response has been phenomenal. I've just been amazed by how impressive people have been under incredible pressure. I'm really quite humbled, because I've come into ONS during the midst of that, and I've seen an operation that has operated to intense pressures very, very slickly. So I'm really proud of everyone.

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