Capturing the true spirit of statistics: Paul Cheung looks back on his Directorship of the UN Statistics Division

Features

  • Author: Statistics Views
  • Date: 15 Apr 2013
  • Copyright: Photograph appears courtesy of Professor Cheung.

Professor Paul Cheung served as Director of the United Nations Statistics Division for nine years before leaving at the end of 2012 to teach analytics at the National University of Singapore

Prior to his appointment with the UN, Professor Cheung served as Chief Statistician of the Government of Singapore and was also President of the International Association of Official Statistics (2001-2003), Chairman of the Governing Board, Statistical Institute for Asia and the Pacific (UN-SIAP) (2002-2004), and Chair of the UNESCAP Committee on Statistics (1998-2000).

StatisticsViews.com talks to Professor Cheung as he looks back over his Directorship, his advice for the next Director and his career, including his thoughts on Big Data and teaching analytics.

thumbnail image: Capturing the true spirit of statistics: Paul Cheung looks back on his Directorship of the UN Statistics Division

1. As your directorship of the United Nations Statistical Division has now drawn to a close, what are your thoughts when you look back on the past nine years? Did you have any objectives when you first began?

Yes, the past nine years have gone by very fast. I started in 2004 with the aim of strengthening the global statistical system, which I believe I achieved. But then, as the world changed, I had to respond to changes and seek out new possibilities.

What are these new possibilities? We are going through a geospatial information revolution. Yet, there is no mechanism internationally to talk about how to manage geospatial information and their integration with other sources of information. Hence, I started the UN Initiative in Global Geospatial Information Management (UN-GGIM) to organize the mapping and geoinformation authorities (please see www.ggim.un.org  for details). At the same time, I also urged the statistical community to seize the moment. At the 2013 UN Statistical Commission, a commissioned paper on Statistical Spatial Framework was featured. The discussion was very useful and I can see that the countries are responding to this call for ‘information integration’.

Both official statistics and geoinformation are ‘structured data’. They are easier to deal with. However, we are moving rapidly into an era of unstructured data: The Big Data era. Hence, I have also started pushing the global statistical community into developing Big Data as a source. I gave a talk about Big Data in the World Bank which is available here. (Video: http://live.worldbank.org/what-happens-when-big-data-meets-official-statistics-live-webcast ; Presentation in PDF: http://www.worldbank.org/wb/Big-data-pc-2012-12-12.pdf).

2. As Director, your main responsibilities were facilitating the development of the global statistical system and coordinating the work of the United Nations Statistical Commission, overseeing a programme of work that includes the development of international statistical standards, the dissemination of global statistical data, the provision of technical advice to member states in the development of national statistical systems, the coordination of international statistical activities, and the delivery of programme support to the UN System on all statistical matters. How do you think the Division evolved during your time there and adapted to the changing needs of the statistical community worldwide?

Firstly, I built the UN Statistical Commission to become the apex of the global statistical system. When I first started, only about 70 countries (mostly developed countries) attended the commission. We have now about 140 countries attending. Before I came, there were very few side events. Now there are so many (close to 60) side events. The UNSC session has become truly a global event with so many countries and agencies coming.

There are now many activities and projects, so many that I can’t really describe them all in full.

The key to a community is the spirit and ethos of the community. We have worked on this with the community. We already had the Fundamental Principles for Official Statistics. In 2014 we will be celebrating the 20th anniversary. We have established principles for the international agencies and worked on quality statements and code of conducts.

I received many letters when I left the UN for which I was very thankful for. These letters from countries truly demonstrate the impact that I have made.

I was very touched to have received so many letters from the governments acknowledging the importance of statistics. In every country I go, I can see our posters. It is amazing.

3. You described how during your tenure the Division received over $14 million from donors which enabled them to develop activities to which thousands of statisticians have attended started and what do you think were your main achievements?

We were able to generate much support from development partners and were able to organize many workshops and seminars. The biggest problem is actually getting ourselves into gear to meet the community’s needs. The needs are tremendous, as you can imagine. We don’t have enough trainers. The aim of our efforts is to transfer knowledge, passing on technical expertise and international standards. However, the biggest problem in the developing world is not just the need for more knowledge. It has to do with institutional arrangement and structural problems.

4. You also helped to organise the first ever World Statistics Day in 2010. What are your memories when you look back on World Statistics Day?

It was really great. Some 140 countries organized events, often involving their heads of states. The main events were in Shanghai, China and Santiago, Chile. In Shanghai, we did a ceremony at the 2010 World Expo site. It was webcasted around the world. In Chile, it was the meeting of the IAOS.

I was very touched to have received so many letters from the governments acknowledging the importance of statistics. In every country I go, I can see our posters. It is amazing.

We emphasized three themes: Integrity, professionalism, and Service to the Nation. I believe these three themes captured the true spirit of official statistics.

5. This year is the International Year of Statistics. What do you think the highlights will be?

I don’t really have any involvement in this despite returning to academia. The International Year of Statistics is more for the academics. The governments are not really involved but I wish all involved every success.

World Statistics Day will occur once every five years. The countries felt that doing it too frequently will dilute the importance.

6. With an educational background from Singapore and the US, when and how did you first become aware of statistics as a discipline?

I was always interested in numbers at school and I learnt about statistics at university. I remember looking through book after book about numbers – their meaning, how they are interpreted, etc. Statistics allowed me to understand the reality through the numbers. The interest in numbers gave me that capability to see along the lines and interpret what the numbers actually mean. I also worked for a long time on formulas and technical areas but at the end of the day, you can have a lot of data and information but statistics allows you to be able to see the pattern, structure and all the meanings that you require. That’s the fun part of statistics I like!

...at the end of the day, you can have a lot of data and information but statistics allows you to be able to see the pattern, structure and all the meanings that you require. That’s the fun part of statistics I like!

7. You have an extremely impressive career path prior to your appointment as Director including serving as Chief Statistician of the Government of Singapore (1991-2004). In this role, you were the National Statistical Coordinator as well as the Chief Executive of the Singapore Department of Statistics; the Director of Population Planning from 1986 to 1992, addressing population policy issues in Singapore. You have also served as President of the International Association of Official Statistics (2001-2003), Chairman of the Governing Board, Statistical Institute of Asia and the Pacific (UN-SIAP) (2002-2004), and Chair of the UNESCAP Committee on Statistics (1998-2000).What are your memories when you look back on your time in the role of Chief Statistician? How did this role bear impact on your subsequent role as Director of the UN Statistics Division?

My work at the UN was a logical extension from my work as Chief Statistician. I got to know the system and processes in statistical production and I was able to interact with my counterparts from many countries. It was a good preparation for the UN role. I would advise the future director of the UN is to draw upon his/her experience in national statistical office and to seek advice from the Director Generals and Chief Statisticians of the countries.

I was working on population statistics before I became the Chief Statistician of Singapore. Then, I realized that population information is only a small part of the national information system. I went ahead to re-built Singapore’s national information system and making Singapore the first country in Asia to do a register-based population census in 2000.

Now coming back, I am working on the integration of information (official statistics, geoinformation, and unstructured ‘big data’). Is this a discipline?

It is more a platform, drawing in many professions. The pure statistical profession is still there and very important. But dealing with the flow of information requires new platforms.

The newest profession is called ‘data scientists’.... are they statisticians? Probably not. But do they need statistics? Of course.

8. You now teach at the National University of Singapore. As a university professor, what do you think the future of teaching statistics will be? What do you think will be the upcoming challenges in engaging students?

I am teaching social analytics and I hope I am encouraging my students to further their career with a strong quantitative focus. I was in a bookshop today and picked up a book on ‘analytics’ published by Wiley and it talked about the statistical methodologies that we are all very familiar with. Analytics build on the methodologies that we know, but they are applied to new approaches to detect patterns and structures.

The greatest challenge at the moment is to bring in new and exciting datasets for research. I think we will see the most interesting developments here. As new datasets emerge, new methodologies will evolve and we see rapid improvement in our ability to analyse huge amount of data to detect patterns.

9. In your role now as Professor, do you plan to conduct any future research projects of your own? What areas of statistics would you like to explore more?

I am now in the process of setting up an Institute for Social Analytics and Research (ISAR). The word ‘analytics’ is interesting.... as it is being used more and more and even replacing the use of ‘statistics’. Analytics is the use of quantitative methods to search for patterns, insights, and structures. This is what statistics is all about. But the world is changing. The statistics profession must change with it.

The greatest challenge at the moment is to bring in new and exciting datasets for research. I think we will see the most interesting developments here. As new datasets emerge, new methodologies will evolve and we see rapid improvement in our ability to analyse huge amount of data to detect patterns.

10. What has been the most exciting development that you have worked on in statistics during your career?

The fact that I was able to open up new horizons, to be able to bring geoinformation and unstructured data into a national information system and getting the governments to realize that to be competitive, we need a truly integrated national information system.

11. Are there people or events that have been influential in your career?

Not really. I did not have a mentor guiding me through the script. But on the other hand, I very much enjoyed working with the statistical and geoinformation community when I was Director, and as ‘a community of practice’ as we called it. When I worked in demographics, I was with a group of close friends who studies together and I look back on that time with fond memories. Then, when I moved to the UN, I met many interesting people including all the Chief Statisticians from many countries. It was a wonderful learning experience. I am truly grateful to all the Chief Statisticians for their personal friendship and professional support.

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