"I have always depended on the kindness of statisticians:" Winning the Greenfield Challenge

Features

  • Author: Alison Oliver
  • Date: 20 Dec 2016
  • Copyright: Image appears courtesy of Ron Eleanor (Shirley Coleman (left), me (centre), Ron Kenett (right)

In September 2016, I was invited to attend the annual conference of the European Network of Business and Industrial Statistics, having won their Greenfield Challenge with my statistical advisor, Ron Kenett.

'The purpose of the Greenfield Challenge is to recognize and honour the efforts of an individual who reached out to a non-statistical audience and inspired it by telling it about the work completed successfully because of the use of statistics.'

The challenge originated in 2009 when Tony Greenfield, Visiting Professor of the Industrial Statistics Research Unit of Newcastle University and to the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya won the Box Medal and challenged the members of ENBIS in his acceptance speech:

"My challenge to you is that you will tell some audience about work you have done, and completed successfully because you used a statistical method. But that audience must be of people who are not statisticians. And you will have spoken to those people through publications that are for the wider public, through magazines or newspapers, or from a public platform. You might even write a short story or a play. … That is my challenge: Tell the world, outside your circle, of work you have done, and done successfully because you used statistics."

It was a great honour to receive this award and below I have included my acceptance speech given on 14th September, including the video of the presentation. (At one point, I found the slides were incorrect and swapped for my memory stick - always keep a memory stick on you, so excuse that point).

Thank you one and all who follow our journey here on Statistics Views.

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Ron Kenett and I were deeply honoured to have been awarded the Greenfield Challenge for 2015. I’m not sure where Ron was but I personally found out as I was just about to go on holiday. I’m sure you’re familiar with the situation where you are trying to get everything done in the hours of the working day that you have left before you go away. So there I was uploading news items and articles to Statistics Views in 30 degree heat in my father-in-law’s study and an email came from my colleague Kathryn Sharples to tell me that I’d won. My father-in-law has a swivel chair and I confess here and now that I may have spun around it in several times and had a gin and tonic before contacting Ron.

So how did Statistics Views come about and how did Ron and I begin to work with one another?

As we all know, statistics underpins the research in a wealth of disciplines, ranging from medicine to engineering, computer science and the social sciences. Wiley is one of the premier publishers in statistics books and journals. In 2012, the community website Statistics Views was created and launched with the aim of providing an online resource for all users of statistics and data analysis, and for showcasing the depth and breadth of Wiley content in this growing field.

Through market research via a series of focus groups and one-on-one interviews with statisticians and statistics users, we identified a gap in the market for a statistics-specific online information hub which offered up-to-date research, news items and data sources.

I came from a background in journals publishing with ten years at Taylor & Francis/CRC Press but with no degree in statistics. You’re looking at a former English Literature student. I had been a Production Editor, then Deputy Production Manager in maths and stats journals, following by being a Managing Editor in engineering and computer science.

During my first six months, I wrote news items and articles, as I started to create a network of freelance statisticians. With the help of Google Analytics, I could see what was popular and what was not. By far the most popular of what I contributed were the interviews. Three weeks after starting, Professor David Spiegelhalter was presenting a documentary on BBC4 called ‘Tails You Win, The Science of Chance’. I thought there is no harm in asking and despite being one of the busiest statisticians I’ve ever met, Professor Spiegelhalter granted an interview. He was kind, funny, approachable and clearly passionate about what he did for a living. Since then, I have not looked back and it is to the statistical community that I have to thank. Tony Greenfield said to reach out, to “Tell the world, outside your circle, of work you have done, and done successfully because you used statistics.” I would not have been able to do this if certain statisticians had not been willing to help me start my journey. Not long after interviewing David whom I’m delighted to say has continued to contribute to Statistics Views, I interviewed Ron after he won the Royal Statistical Society’s Greenfield Medal in 2013. He asked me all about Statistics Views and I spoke to him about my concerns as to how I was not qualified to check the soundness and accuracy of articles that I was about to commission.

Ron very kindly offered to check the articles for me and over time, as Statistics Views grew, so did the panel and this is our story.

What I especially wish to get across to you all today is that this site is for you – it has been designed for the statistical community and it is my job to ensure that the site demonstrates the sheer variety of the subject discipline all in one place. I’ll also be asking questions later to test you as to how well you now know after Statistics Views, so this is going to be interactive!

Statistics Views provides us with a single platform to highlight all of our statistics-related content across Wiley’s entire business. The site receives consistently positive feedback from Authors, Editors and the wider subject community. The mixture of content types and the free-to-access model is much admired and appreciated. The site has also helped bring several new book authors to Wiley and is becoming a valuable commissioning tool. What is also important about Statistics Views, is IT'S FREE! It is free to register on Statistics Views and if you are not, if there is one thing I would like you to do at all from this presentation is register once this is over, so you can obtain full access to everything the site has to offer as some webinars and videos are locked in order to encourage registration.

The website is structured into 6 broad subject areas: biostatistics, business and economics, engineering, environmental statistics, methods and social science. Related book, journal and Statistics Views content is suggested next to every article, news item, webinar, video, book and journal, which in turn helps to make our products easier for customers to discover.

Statistics Views generated a positive audience response right from launch. Combined with healthy open rates of the newsletters, we have achieved a strong and loyal fan base. The website was built to serve the statistical community and from the start for me it was research, research, research. What was hot, what wasn’t, what was growing? With the help of Ron and the other members of the panel, we have continually maintained the site with content of quality, relevance and interest to the entire community published on a regular basis. The combination of interesting content and using freelancers with strong social networks has led to a greater range of influential websites hosting links to Statistics Views from the Guardian to FiveThirtyEight.com. The website is growing and expanding in delivering new products and services in response to the changing needs of the community, for example, regular content includes:

  • 4-6 articles per month written by freelance subject experts, our authors on their research and myself covering interviews.
  •  Research of the Day - Early View article and journal article feeds from Wiley Online Library.
  • Layman’s abstracts written by journal article authors, which are designed to make the latest journal research more accessible to non-expert statisticians, again one of the aims of Tony Greenfield. This was a slow burner to begin with but from 2 a month, I now receive 2 a week.
  • Events’ is amongst the most accessed sections, advertising the workshops, conferences and meetings of various societies which helps us to maintain good relations with the professional statistical organizations of the world.
  • @StatisticsViews twitter feed advertises 2 jobs a day. These are often retweeted.
  • Audio and visual content including training videos from the late George Box, Judea Pearl on learning and teaching causality, online tutorials using R, Python and SAS demonstrating various statistical techniques, and downloadable data sets for the site to help teachers, take your pick from Godzilla vs King Kong to Zombie Flu.
  • And finally webinars (successful webinars include International Year of Statistics lecture by Radio 4 host and Financial Times columnist, Tim Harford and the Future of Statistical Sciences workshop in 2013 in which the leading statistical societies of the world took part, including ENBIS).

I send seven monthly newsletters from each of the different subject areas including a general digest one and here is an example.

Who is our audience?

Currently, we draw an average of 15-20K visits to the site a month. They consist of mainly academics, consultants, professionals and students, most commonly aged from 18-34.

The US makes up the vast majority of our audience, followed by UK and India.

What has been popular so far?

The articles, features and videos on 'Best of 2015' give you an idea of what everyone is reading. Here you can see that the interviews are popular – Ben Goldacre and Brad Efron, freelance pieces on history of R and the scandal behind FIFA. Thanks to new media technology, we are entering a new phase of statistics. First the advent of the computers, now the possibilities of what media and technology can bring us, from Twitter followers to webinars.

Key success stories
• We have a strong and growing Twitter profile with 7000+ followers and the site has been named by the National Institute of Statistical Sciences as one of the ‘top experts’ to follow. Please follow us @StatisticsViews.
• We have attracted a series of high profile interviewees from Nate Silver which has attracted over 10,000 views to date to Sir David Cox.
• We hosted a data visualization competition celebrating World Statistics Day (20th October 2015) which was supported by three major societies (American Statistical Association, Royal Statistical Society and guess who, European Network of Business and Industrial Statistics) which generated over 100 entries and enhanced our profile on social media and as an online community website.
• We host a popular series of practical guides and tutorials on varied subject matter from control charts to data visualization.
• In feedback via social media, Statistics Views has received commendation for articles on current topics which have also drawn high audience figures, from the Syrian refugee crisis to questioning the statistics of a recent BBC article on the world’s marine population.
• We have established a long-term working relationship with the UK Office for National Statistics ensuring Statistics Views has access to the latest releases of UK data.

But in terms of statistics meeting technology which is really what Statistics Views is all about when you get down to it, this here is a story to tell.

Meet Paula McLeod, who is the statistician for a certain remote island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean called St Helena. To give you an idea of how remote it is, St Helena is 4,000 kilometres (2,500 mi) east of Rio de Janeiro and 1,950 kilometres (1,210 mi) west of the Cunene River, which marks the border between Namibia and Angola in southwestern Africa. One Napolean Bonaparte was exiled there in 1815 where he would remain until his death six years later. In 2013, we celebrated the International Year of Statistics. Two webinars we created were of lectures, one by Tim Harford and David Spiegelhalter. I received an email from Paula, who showed the webinar in which David Spiegelhalter talked about the role of statistics in public health to local government, along with nurses and admin staff in the health directorate to encourage better use of statistics. She wrote this to me and David, “After watching the seminar we had a really productive discussion, everyone got something out of it. On the request of councilors we are now looking at calendars to fit in further sessions of this kind. They are supporting my quest to get as many government officials as possible to attend so that we can make inroads into improving engagement with data collection and sharing.” So I was delighted to receive this comment and this is an example of what Tony Greenfield wished for!

Can I please just also add that I love Paula’s t-shirt for World Statistics Day? 'Statistician only because full time super skilled ninja is not an actual job title'.

Call to action - How does or could Statistics Views benefit you?

You can start your daily research in this free resource and keep up to date with what is new and hot in the area. The searching functionality on the site remains very popular. You can search by article type, date or topic.

Would you like to join our network of freelancers for the website? One of my freelancers, Dr John Fry who has written on everything from Star Wars toys to Brexit and is here said to me, “I owe you a big thank you for the chance to write for the Statistics Views website. It has given me more of an external profile, more confidence and it has also helped my writing for academic journal articles so I am really very grateful. It has also been lovely to be able to show my parents and some of my friends some of my work that didn't have an off-putting amount of maths in it!”

Conclusion

To conclude, Statistics Views is about bringing statistics together. We work in one of the leading disciplines of this world so now we can be a leader in terms of our online content and data. Since launch, Statistics Views has attracted nearly 600,000 visitors. The site is consistently ranked on the first page of Google search results for ‘statistics’, driving usage to content that has been vetoed by the efforts of the statisticians who have kindly volunteered their wisdom and I would like to take this opportunity to thank all of them here (Ron, Shirley, Lance, Xavier, David, Irena, Fabrizio, Bart, Antonio, Rainer, Phillipe, Martina and our latest newcomers). As I said at the beginning of this presentation, I was a complete novice to statistics but now I am a complete devotee. When I was waiting to interview Nate Silver, I had butterflies in my stomach as it felt like I was meeting a Beatle. I get angry at news reports now when even I can find that the statistics has been reported inaccurately, from the Syrian refugee crisis to speeches on the NHS and immigration during the EU referendum vote.

I’ve found there’s a genuine interest in spreading the word about the profession. Everyone I have met so far has used the same word to describe statistics – ‘fun’ – and I try to make that part of the site as well. I have two daughters, aged five and two, and if either one of them one day turns round to me and says that she wants to be a statistician, I will know that she will have a job for life. This is a discipline that I am now as passionate about as you are and it is thanks to a website from which I have been able to reach into the statistical community and I have been welcomed with open arms. Only one statistician told me that he wouldn’t bother telling me what he does as I wouldn’t understand it. But I have found that I am not the only former English literature student/turned statistics writer, as journalist Michael Blastland wrote a statistics blog for the Guardian and co-wrote the book The Norm Chronicles. Because statistics is a subject that can be approached by all as it touches upon every discipline.

My deepest thanks to the ENBIS committee for this award and I would also like to express thanks to my family, Ron, and my colleagues at Wiley, particularly Sarah Brett, Paulina Shirley, Steve Raywood and most of all, Kathryn Sharples, whose advice and guidance have played a massive role.

So as a former student of literature in front of a load of statisticians, I would like to take this opportunity to quote a line from the play, A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams, in which Blanche Dubois uttered the famous line. “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” I have always depended on the kindness of statisticians. Thank you.

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Published features on StatisticsViews.com are checked for statistical accuracy by a panel from the European Network for Business and Industrial Statistics (ENBIS)   to whom Wiley and StatisticsViews.com express their gratitude. This panel are: Ron Kenett, David Steinberg, Shirley Coleman, Irena Ograjenšek, Fabrizio Ruggeri, Rainer Göb, Philippe Castagliola, Xavier Tort-Martorell, Bart De Ketelaere, Antonio Pievatolo, Martina Vandebroek, Lance Mitchell, Gilbert Saporta, Helmut Waldl and Stelios Psarakis.