Small Island Statistics in a World of Big Data

Author: Paula McLeod

St Helena is a small island heading for big change. One of the most isolated islands in the world, St Helena has been used as a stopover for passing ships on the pre-Suez canal route from Europe to Asia and South Africa and as a place of exile. The isolation is true both physically and in terms of communications – our internet connection speeds range from 128Kbps – 2 Mbps depending on the depth of your pocket. Although improving the speed of our broadband services is dependent on securing funding to re-route a planned trans-Atlantic fibre connection the days of physical isolation are numbered. St Helena is facing up to irrevocable change with the impending arrival of air access – construction is well underway for an airport scheduled for operational completion in February 2016.

As we head into this change St Helena has a higher than ever demand for reliable data on the people, the economy and the environment. The statistics need to be bang up-to-date (where possible) and accessible to all (always!). To build trust, provide accountability and enable the community at large to engage and support the change process everyone must have access to the same information. This means many changes in the way we collect data, process information, and then report and disseminate. We need to modify approaches to provide immediate information, accessible to all and presented in a way they can understand regardless of level of education. I don’t believe that these are radical ideas but making an idea a reality is not always easy, especially when involves many technical and skilled processes.

We strive to improve the range and timeliness of our outputs. This requires substantial effort into coaxing, cajoling and pleading for data. It is difficult to improve access to data without a concerted corporate commitment from Government and the private sector. Some efforts are made but with the many competing demands placed on limited resources progress is slow. I am the only statistician but I do have a small team of assistants who are young but extremely enthusiastic. We have a ten year plan to get at least one of them up to competency of a level 2 statistician. Gaining the interest of the non-statisticians is part luck, part judgment and a great deal of perseverance!

Making statistics available in a timely accessible way, raising the profile of the statistics office and supporting potential users in understanding how and why statistics are all entwined are a first step. We are finding more and more people contacting us. Often this is for updates on specific information streams but we are also receiving general queries, e.g. “I am doing ‘X’, what information do you have and how can I use it? This is where the enthusiasm and friendliness of my team come in – people like talking to us and are not afraid to ask questions. We work hard to take the fear out of statistics!

Within government we are supported by our location within the Corporate Policy and Planning Unit (CPPU). This does help to ensure that statistics are used well, used frequently and used appropriately. The St Helena Government is striving to embed a modernisation programme, driven from within CPPU, which affects all aspects of the running of the island but most relevantly to the statistics office there is a clear and frequently voiced need for monitoring, transparency and evidence based decision making. Again I strive to ensure that officials and politicians are supported in making good use of statistics and have colleagues who are well versed in the use of statistics and reminding people to come and talk to me if they need support or further information.

There is a natural fear of sharing information and data on St Helena. It is difficult plus can be expensive and time-consuming to get started. Developing an understanding of the importance of making good use of data is a first step. Building confidence that this information will be protected appropriately comes next. Providing the training and support in adopting new information management systems is the last remaining barrier, and a substantial one at that.

Before coming to the island I had only ever worked in the UK in academia and the civil service. I took for granted the many experts which surrounded me. If that advice and support wasn’t found in my office or through professional contacts then it is often a Google search away. Training courses and workshops are readily available. Where needed, consultants and contractors can be bought in to fill vital roles in a project for a day, a week or as and when required. This is underpinned by essentially free public access to fantastic television programmes presenting information in such an accessible way that broadening knowledge and understanding of new topics is taken for granted.

The physical isolation of the island means that is it expensive and time-consuming to get people in or out. Our island is serviced by the RMS St Helena, a wonderful (and highly recommended) experience but it is still a five day voyage from the nearest international airport. Internet access is much improved but slow and expensive even those with the deepest pockets are limited to (a slow!) 5 GB per month. There are some benefits – a clamour to borrow the latest Hans Rosling DVD, a healthy audience when it has been possible to access a seminar. The  wily statistician will use this to her advantage wherever she can.

We hold seminars here and it is something new and exciting here with many people having a genuine enthusiasm for learning. It can be easy to become overwhelmed with the level of information we have access to in the UK. St Helena is a good reminder that it is in fact a privilege. When we showed a lecture by Andrew Dilnot last year is was the first time anything of that nature had been seen within government. This is why I keep hunting for any resources I can get hold of, such as David Spiegelhalter’s webinar here on Statistics Views on statistical methods in healthcare – it is really important to keep generating enthusiasm for use and application of statistics. The more statistically aware people that surround me are, the better use they will make of statistics, the more they will understand how important it is to collect and share data, and so the better our statistics will get and enabling a greater understanding of the impact of policy and business decisions which will ultimately improve the well-being to St Helenians.

Statistics can be so fantastically powerful and informative when presented well, it can be easy to enthused people if you have right hooks to draw then in. This is very much work in progress here but we are moving in the right direction. We are in for a snowball effect too – the more people we start to draw in, the more will follow suit… watch this space!!

We watch international developments in the world of big data with interest as methodologies, data governance and security measures are developed and refined. Someday we will follow in these footsteps but for now we are stuck firmly in a different era. St Helena is not alone in dealing with barriers in accessing the training and implementing the software which would enable us to join the big data revolution. I am sure that others will join our plea – in a time of big data don’t forget about the small places. We are the small details in big data that stands to be lost without the support and cajoling needed to get involved. As you revel in the joy of big data don’t forget about those of us who can’t join in (yet!).