Creating a Global Map of Sporting Statues

Dr Chris Stride is a Senior Lecturer and Applied Statistician at the Institute of Work Psychology, University of Sheffield, and also runs a statistical training and consultancy service. He has published across a wide range of social science disciplines, even dipping his toe into the pure sciences and humanities from time-to-time, and is particularly interested in the use of statistical methods to support and add rigour to research in areas where advanced quantitative analysis would typically be considered an anathema.

Together with PhD student Ffion Thomas, HR consultant Dr John Wilson, proof reader Nick Catley and researcher Ana Maria Chamorro, Stride created The Sporting Statues Project which records and researches statues of sportsmen and women around the world. Since 2010 they have published academic papers and magazine articles, and collected information on over 600 statues.

Statistics Views talks to Dr Stride about the origins of the Project and his current research into the use of statistical methods to support and add rigour to research in areas where advanced quantitative analysis would typically be considered an anathema.

1. Please could you let us know how the Sporting Statues Project came about?

One of my colleagues, Dr John Wilson, came into my office, and he said he had lots of photos of statues, and were we interested in doing something with them (although he didn’t quite specify what). I was curious about how many there were; being a statistician, you like to know how many. So, I thought I’d try and track them down, and that maybe we could write a short article for a magazine about them. I soon came to realise that no one that done anything about this before at all, and actually it was quite interesting because they had just suddenly started appearing, so why they were appearing soon became the interesting question, as much as how many there were. So, myself, John, and my other colleague on the project, Ffion Thomas first tracked down and recorded all the sporting statues in the UK. Ffion and I then looked at US baseball, world cricket and world football. That took about us three and a half years!

2. The Project records and researches statues of sportsmen and women around the world. What are the main objectives of the Project and how is it progressing so far?

My initial question was how many of these statues are there, and we were going to write a short article for a football magazine about them. But, I very soon became interested not just in what there was, but also how and why these things come about. So, it soon changed from a simple database creation to a very interdisciplinary project crossing over into business, sculpture, public art, sociology and sport history as well, as I wanted to find out about the people that were being depicted. So, I effectively ended up doing this unfunded multidisciplinary project with a friend in the evenings!

We had two objectives. We wanted to build a database of the statues and then try to explain why they occurred, so it wasn’t just a case of finding out where they were and who sculptured them, we very much wanted to know the stories behind them. We soon found out that it wasn’t really who was being depicted that was the interest in each statue, it was the people going about creating them. Fundamentally, when you look at a piece of art, it often tells you more about the person that created it then the person it is depicting. It’s going to reflect the culture, the time it was created, the place, and its meaning is going to change over time.

For example, a statue of a favourite player might be put up at a ground, and they subsequently leave to play for another team. That player is no longer a hero, so the meaning of that statue to the people really changes. It can also work the other way, the object can become part of the ground or city that it’s put in. One thing you notice is that where statues occur in towns, it doesn’t tend to be in big cities, but in smaller towns, and often those that have lost their industrial base, for instance, Ashington in Northumberland, a big coal mining area, where all the coal mines have gone. These towns can lose their identity, so to try to reclaim that identity they put up a statue of their most famous native son, often a sportsperson (in this case, footballer Jackie Milburn, who played for Newcastle). You can see that in Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent, where a lot of the pottery making has gone, they’ve put up a statue of Stanley Matthews. There are numerous examples like these from both the UK and around the world.

The other places that tend to put statues up are new towns, new shopping malls, new football stadiums. These locations are a blank canvas and people want to give them a sense of identity. This works for football clubs with new stadiums. They’ve lost the history of the old stadium, so they put up a statue of an old player to make the stadium seem a bit more interesting, a bit more authentic, and a bit less commercial. The same goes for shopping centres. There is a statue of Gareth Edwards, the Welsh rugby player, in the main shopping centre in Cardiff. More weirdly, there’s a shopping centre in Leicester that has a statue of a lawn bowls player, who was the local hero there. There’s a shopping centre in Northumberland with a statue of a famous strongman from the 1800s. It’s all about creation of identity and trying to deflect the overtly commercial nature of the surroundings.

A more extreme version from America is a baseball player called Jackie Robinson, virtually unknown in the UK, but incredibly famous in America because he was the first black baseball player of the modern era and lifted an unofficial colour bar. He was very brave, suffering a lot of abuse while playing. Several US towns have put up statues of Jackie Robinson, and you find that these are places where Robinson was originally welcomed. So, you look at these statues and you think, ‘are they celebrating Jackie Robinson triumphing over racism?’, but actually, they are probably more about that town saying everybody else was really nasty towards him, but that they were tolerant. Again, statues are so often about branding a place.

3. How is statistics playing a role within the Project?

There are two ways in which statistics plays a role. Very soon after I started doing the project, I started reading lots of papers in sociology and history, and they almost always use single case studies or a couple of examples. You read these examples and think ‘are they all like that?’ As a statistician, you are always thinking about representative samples! So, you are reading with a different eye than historians or sociologists. I thought there was an opportunity to try and write some papers in disciplines where statistical analysis is rarely included, and provide some quantitative data to add context to these single case studies. I very much wanted to have a complete database of all these statues. I wrote a paper about specific statues, but was then able to say that they were representative. Whilst creating the database was a very good way of making the project accessible to the public, the reason for collecting the descriptive statistical data was also to provide context in an academic sense as well. We have also written another paper looking at building a model that predicts who gets a statue.

Whilst creating the database was a very good way of making the project accessible to the public, the reason for collecting the descriptive statistical data was also to provide context in an academic sense as well.

4. What kind of feedback have you received so far?

We get a lot of correspondence! The outward facing part of the project is the website public, which documents all the statues we’ve found. It’s there for two reasons, firstly as a general public interest website; everybody likes to look at their heroes and it helps people wanting to learn about different sporting figures. It’s also there to satisfy people that like to collect and tick things off. It’s there in part for entertainment!

We’ve done some TV, radio and national and local newspaper interviews. We’ve had lots of coverage including the New York Times and the BBC. We get a lot of feedback from people that are involved in statue projects, and sculptors as well. We get people supplying us with extra information.

The website doesn’t just show off the databases, it includes statue location maps. These use Google Maps and mark every statue at their precise location. You can then click on the statue to take you through to the information on that statue. It’s the best way to find out where your nearest statue is.

5. What have been the high points of the Project so far? Have there be any low points?

It’s nice to get papers published in other fields. Having a go at writing a history paper and getting it published was very satisfying. Seeing other people using the data is also great. Getting coverage on other peoples’ blogs is quite interesting because you tend to get relatively informed discussions about statues. There have been a couple of sculptors that have said they really like the website and find it really helpful when thinking about statues. We never expected that to happen!

Another high point has been the help we’ve had from people. We were continually asking people to take photos of statues, and people always said yes.

In terms of low points, it really is hard tracking down information on some things. Pre-internet statues are hard to find information on, even without a language barrier. It often involves huge amounts of phone calls, sometimes in the middle to the night to libraries in small American towns (for the baseball statues), asking them to look up old newspaper databases.

The language barrier when doing the world football database was really tough. That’s why, whilst I’m pretty confident that the UK sport, cricket and baseball databases are complete, the world football one probably isn’t, as actually tracking statues in other languages is difficult. Football is played in every country, so you have to do Google searches in every language, but then you’re only googling various keywords, and pre-internet statues are unlikely to be picked up so easily. It was very hard tracking statues in China and North Korea, particularly getting a photo. We sent out press releases around the world. The project was unfunded so I spent a couple of days emailing students on campus asking them to translate press releases. When you run an unfunded project yourself, you end up doing everything. It’s good fun in a lot of cases, but it does present certain challenges.

6. What are your plans beyond 2014?

We aren’t going to do any more databases. World football is, as Ffion puts it, “the Holy Grail”. It’s the most popular sport and has the most statues. We are just going to try to keep the database up to date for a few years. Hopefully other people will use it and write papers, and collaborate with us. We have a couple more papers we’re writing. Then it will be nice to have a little bit of a break from talking and writing about statues. I guess there will be some interest during the World Cup, so we’ll hopefully make the most of that and then finish off a few papers and take a bit of a break from it.

7. How are you measuring success so far? Are you able to measure your influence at all?

The website has had 30,000 hits in the last month. I never thought there would be 30,000 people wanting to look at it. They have been from all over the world, which is nice. People from hundreds of different countries have looked at it. In terms of measuring influence on the sports statue industry (I never intended to have any influence on it, it’s certainly not something that I’m in any way seeking!), it will be interesting to see if statues become more homogenous in design across the world as people take ideas from other countries. I was looking to answer the question ‘why are these things created and what do they tell us about the people that are creating them?’. That’s what we’d aimed to do during the project, and hopefully people’s reactions to our academic papers will say whether we’ve been successful or not.

In terms of measuring influence, no, it’s not so easy. If anyone has any ideas how I can write it up as ‘impact’ for the next REF I’d love to know. I guess it’s called working in the humanities!

8. Your background is as a Senior Lecturer and Applied Statistician at the Institute of Work Psychology, University of Sheffield and you also runs a statistical training and consultancy service. What was it that first introduced you to statistics as a discipline and inspired you to take it up as a career?

I did maths and statistics as my undergraduate degree at the University of Warwick. I didn’t do pure maths because I think even then I was quite interested in numbers and collecting things. I didn’t do a statistics A Level, I did maths, but I was interested in applying it more, so that was how I got drawn into statistics. I did more and more statistics modules in my third year, and decided then that I wanted to do a PhD (also at Warwick) as I was really interested in it. Ironically, my PhD was quite mathematical, it wasn’t very applied. So actually having finished my PhD I was even more determined to do something applied. A job came up at the University of Sheffield working on a dataset of NHS staff, which was quite interesting as I’d not really done any survey type statistics at all. The main thing you learn is that you have to be able to convey results to other people. It’s not just about solving equations for fun, it’s about actually tackling data and coming up with pragmatic solutions to problems, and you’ve got to be able to convey that to people in a non-mathematical sense.

9. You are particularly interested in the use of statistical methods to support and add rigour to research in areas where advanced quantitative analysis would typically be considered an anathema. Please could you explain to our readers your current research on this?

Sport is a potentially very good crossover as it generates a lot of data that is very publicly understandable. People can relate to the number of runs in cricket, or the number of goals scored, so it gives people a way into numbers. Sport historians sometimes tabulate those numbers, but rarely do anything more with them. The idea of a sample, a population, generalisability or inferential analysis are an anathema to most, so that’s where I was coming from. I’m now trying to do a similar thing with football kit design, coding up and analysing the way football kits have changed over the years.

10. As well as teaching statistics, I note that you also run a Statistics Clinic for postgraduate students from the Sheffield University Management School. What do you think the future of teaching statistics will be?

I can only speak from my particular area of statistics and teaching experience. I work in an occupational psychology research institute which is in the Management School. We run a single MSc, which I teach on. I also teach advanced statistical methods to postgraduate students from various social sciences. So, what I can talk about is the future of teaching social science students in the UK, which is an area the ESRC are throwing a huge amount of money and effort into at the moment, as there is an obvious skills gap there. My take on it is that the skills gap is largely there because computing power has increased, making a lot more possible. Maybe 30 years ago, psychologists would learn to do a t-test and an ANOVA, maybe a multiple regression, because that’s pretty much all you could do by pen, paper and calculator. The technology restricted the complexity of statistics that you could do, and therefore what you were taught, and what found its way into top level journals. Now, with a couple of clicks, you can run a multi-level structural equation model, and even Bayesian estimation is becoming more accessible to social scientists, it’s no longer the preserve of specialist statisticians. At the top end of publication in social science journals, there is now an expectation that people use advanced techniques. If you’re a postgraduate in the social sciences and you aspire to be a top researcher, you want to publish in the top journals, but if you want to do anything quantitative, you’re going to have to learn incredibly advanced statistics relative to the very basic understanding that undergraduate training has always provided. So, there is a huge gap when you want to become a top researcher, that’s not being filled, and won’t ever be filled very easily because computing power will always keep increasing and top journals will always want to publish papers with newer more sophisticated techniques, so there will always be expectations on researchers to learn more. I think it’s far better to analyse something properly using a simpler method than it is to analyse data with a method that you can’t be realistically expected to understand. I did three years as an undergraduate and three years as a postgraduate learning statistics as my degree subject, and yet there is this assumption that someone from psychology, geography etc, from a couple of ten week courses will be able to dive in and be able to run and competently interpret, say, a hierarchical linear model using Bayesian estimation techniques… it’s ludicrous. As a statistician I’m often trying to dampen down people’s expectations. You have to build up your knowledge slowly and consolidate it like you would in any other subject; you can’t just dive in at the top. There’s an inherent impatience created by the way top journals now drive method inflation without any inflation in the level of teaching to bridge that gap. It’s a real problem. I think there needs to be more time devoted in undergraduate social science degrees to teaching statistics. There is no quick answer to building peoples’ base knowledge up, and if there’s no extra time spent on statistics in undergraduate degrees in the social sciences, then they’re really going to struggle to catch up later.

Doing statistics does not force you to be a statistician for the rest of your life. It gives you a way in to many different areas, almost allowing you to delay what you decide to do because so many disciplines and jobs need someone who’s numerate. Being a good statistician is also about being a good creative thinker and a good problem solver, and if you’re a good problem solver, you can get a job in almost any field you want.

11. What are the current and what do you think will be the upcoming challenges in engaging students?

The main challenge is fear. I can only speak from dealing with MSc occupational psychology students that have just finished their undergraduate degrees. It’s largely fear of numbers. I think that’s getting better; numbers are just more visible in everyday life. With social media for instance, how many likes, how many hits, what’s trending, people see graphs all the time, and I think that makes it easier to sell the importance of it, it makes it easier to have relevant examples. But, on the other hand, I don’t know enough about how maths is currently being taught in schools. That’s the underpinning of basic numeracy, without which you can’t do stats! The major challenge is fear, and that’s probably something that’s being learnt at school. I think the other challenge, is something that I hope is going to become less prevalent – the “I don’t do numbers” attitude, where that is almost seen as a badge of honour. No one would ever say “I can’t read” as a badge of honour so why speak l,ike that bout numeracy? Numeracy isn’t given the same prominence as literacy, but it is actually going to become as important in many roles in life.

12. Do you have any advice for students considering a university degree in statistics?

I would say “do it”! It’s fantastic to have a career in as it means you can work in any area you want. Often statisticians go into work in a particular area and become an expert in that area. Doing statistics does not force you to be a statistician for the rest of your life. It gives you a way in to many different areas, almost allowing you to delay what you decide to do because so many disciplines and jobs need someone who’s numerate. Being a good statistician is also about being a good creative thinker and a good problem solver, and if you’re a good problem solver, you can get a job in almost any field you want.

13. Over the years, how has your teaching, consulting, and research motivated and influenced each other? Do you get research ideas from statistics and incorporate your ideas into your teaching?

Yes, very much so. I think there is a very natural synergy. Running training courses particularly creates opportunities for consultancy and research through the people you meet at them. You end up working on interesting projects, and that gives you access to data and examples you can use in your teaching. I think teaching also really sharpens and deepens your knowledge. If you’re at the front of a class, you have to have an answer for everything, preparation is incredibly important. The more you teach, the better you get at it. You start to anticipate questions, and think about the best way of answering them… that deepens your knowledge. It also forces you to keep up to date with things as well. I’m always surprised that more academics don’t try to teach the more advanced stuff more widely. If it’s something you’ve researched and found out and it’s interesting, and if it can make a difference to peoples’ lives or careers, then why not get it out there? It seems an obvious way of exploiting material you already have, and doing something good with it.

14. Is there a particular piece of work (research or otherwise) that you are proudest of?

I am quite proud of the sporting statues database, but that is very much a jointproject, so really I’m proud of what we’ve done rather that what I’ve done. There’s a paper I’m writing on cheating in football at the moment, which is quite a novel idea I think. I don’t tend to look back that much though, once I’ve done something I want to do something else.

15. What has been the best book on statistics that you have ever read?

As I’m a social scientist, I approach books in two ways. I have books that have influenced me as a methodologian, and books that have influenced me as an applied statistician. For the methodologian, ‘Density Estimation for Statistics and Data Analysis’ by Bernard Silverman. That was very much the book that my PhD developed from. It’s a very good readable book about statistics methodology, which is quite rare. I was able to pick it up at the end of my undergraduate degree and be able to understand a lot of it, and see ideas for things I could do beyond it. It must have been a good book because generally, those sorts of books aren’t so easily readable.

In terms of applied statistics – Venables and Ripley, ‘Modern Applied Statistics with S’. A really good series, with good examples, and nicely laid out. It’s really rigorous, but it isn’t full of equations. It doesn’t intimidate too much. It’s very hard striking that balance when you’re trying to write an applied statistics book for a particular non-mathematical discipline.


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