Interview: Tom Smith, managing director of the new body in the Office of National Statistics, says it can do a lot to support policy makers in understanding complex issues
Tom Smith has been working on the more complex uses of data since the early 1990s, from a PhD on the evolutionary algorithms to control robots, to 10 years at Oxford Consultants for Social Inclusion, developing tools, projects and datasets to understand impact of services. But the foundation of the Data Science Campus within the Office of National Statistics (ONS) provided the first job opening to attract him towards joining government.
“It was the first time I had seen a job in government that was doing the sort of things I was interested in,” he says. “It was a huge opportunity to do at scale something that I still find very exciting.”
The campus was set up with £10 million provided by former chancellor George Osborne in March of last year, and Smith stepped into the role of managing director at the end of January. The brief is to increase the ONS’s capabilities in helping government, business, universities and the third sector to better understand the economy and society. “Using new datasets to understand the world,” is how Smith describes it.
“Our remit is to explore new types of data, many of which are now part of day-to-day life, and the value of the datasets for insight into what the economy is doing, perhaps at a local level or for what particular industry sectors are doing. It’s using different types of data and sources to understand inflation, big ticket items like GDP, and supporting flagship work by ONS like the National Census.”
The demand for this reflects the growing appreciation in the senior ranks of the public sector that there are a lot of new sources of data out there, and the emergence of data science is expanding the potential to better understand very complex issues.
“Data is huge. In lots of circles it has always been so, but where I see a shift is in senior decision makers talking about data and its value for their organisations, the country and services,” Smith says.
“When someone like (head of the Civil Service) John Manzoni stands up and talks about the importance of data and the capability across government it’s a great shift.”
Smith says the campus is not in the business of independently coming up with ideas for projects, but is beginning to work in collaboration with teams inside the ONS and from other parts of government, with a “rule of thumb” split of 50-50 between the two. It is being proactive in building relationships and starting discussions that should point to the issues that need a better understanding through data.
The process is also subject to a criteria focused on what data is available and the likely impacts from a project. He points to an early effort to pick up data on VAT returns from HM Revenue & Customs to provide a quick model of GDP that would be available in advance of the official statistics. There could be occasions – Smith points to the downturn in the third quarter of 2008 – when knowing this sooner would help policy-makers react more quickly to an impending crisis.
While spotting the value of a dataset is one thing, obtaining it in a usable format is another. He acknowledges that there can be frustrations in dealing with the public and private sectors, but is optimistic that attitudes are changing towards a more open approach.
“Coming from a 25-year user of government data in various forms I would say it’s always changing,” he says. “What’s clear now is that people see data, its access and use, as a core part of their business and organisational activities rather than a one-off thing.”
As for the private sector: "I feel we are in a stage where particular private sector organisations know more about the world than government does. That’s a big shift for us all.
“The flip side is that a lot of those organisations are very keen to use their data for public good and to collaborate with government agencies like ONS.”
As examples of the potential, he points to three projects in the campus pipeline. One deals with how we understand inflation, which takes in interest rates, salary discussions, and what people are buying. Traditionally, this has involved an emphasis on surveys, but he says the ONS can learn more from point of sale data such as till receipts and internet purchases, obtaining an even more detailed picture of the baskets of goods that people buy.
The second involves the use of mobile phone data to provide information on movement, travel and work patterns. This could provide an understanding of how local economies are changing, the operation of the travel infrastructure and the needs of businesses on an ongoing basis rather than relying on the 10-yearly National Census.
The third is around the use of image data, such as satellite and street level imagery.
“We’re interested in using the data to turn images into statistics, which involves image classifiers, neural networks, deep learning. It’s using stuff that statisticians are not usually associated with to create economic or environmental datasets.”
In relation to this, the campus is currently working with the Natural Capital team at ONS to develop a stronger understanding of environmental factors such as the density of trees and foliage in urban areas.
On a broad front, it now aims to deliver five research programmes under the themes of urban future, society, sustainability, evolving economy and the UK in a global context. It is beginning to build a network of academic partners, nationally and internationally, and providing funding for PhD candidates to take these forward.
Smith points to a number of workstreams for the next 12 months. One is to use data from sources such as satellites and mobile phones to assess progress on meeting sustainable development goals in line with UN global indicators. Another is the effort to obtain a faster estimate on GDP. There will also be work on data on international trade, and how machine learning can be used in the breakdown of industry sectors.
It all relates to the ONS role of publishing information, analysis and research that feeds into major policy decisions.
Smith also emphasises the role of the campus in building the national capability in data analytics and science. He expects there will always be a shortfall of skills in the public sector, but that it is possible to reduce the gap and that the campus is making an early contribution in its apprenticeship scheme, which is expecting its second intake over the next few months.
“This is a great area for vocational training,” he says. “We’ve had people who have started a maths degree, shown they are skilled, but dropped out after a year wanting to work in real world applications.”
For filling the roles needing experience there is bound to be a lot of competition from the private sector, where there will always be salaries higher than those available in government. But Smith says there are features of the campus that should ensure it attracts plenty of talent.
“What’s different for us is we have the most interesting and high impact problems and challenges, so you can really make a difference. Looking at how you increase the return on your advertising investment is not as interesting as increasing the understanding of society.
“Also, we have access and coverage of hugely interesting data sources. So if you’re a data scientist looking for big challenges and data to get your teeth into, we have them.”
Image from ONS