The human edge to statistics: how the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation was developed

Written by Naomi Larsson on 5 June 2018

With nominations open for the Civil Service Awards 2018, we speak to a 2017 Analysis winner about the importance of accessible data and what the index means to him

Alastair McAlpine uses the index to address problems in his hometown of Tullibody. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

For four years statistician Alastair McAlpine led a sensitive and important project collecting information on deprived communities in his native Scotland. He and his colleagues Maike Waldmann and Paul Tyrer were tasked with finding better, more accessible ways to present this data, culminating in the publication of the latest Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD), which was released in 2016.

McAlpine and his team were commended for their work and presented with the Analysis and Evidence Award at the Civil Service Awards 2017, credited as a great example of how to communicate findings and give a human edge to statistics.

“The fact that we won the award is good recognition of the fact that it's not difficult to communicate evidence with a lot of impact,” McAlpine says.

SIMD was initially developed to identify areas of deprivation – based on issues including income, employment, health, education, crime and housing.

This data is collected and presented with a view to being used to improve lives and services. But when McAlpine began the initial phases of the project and was talking to these deprived communities, he found that the index wasn’t well respected.

“People were saying SIMD was stigmatising areas, that every time we published SIMD we were pointing a big finger at the most deprived areas. It was seen as a stick to beat people with I think,” he says. “So we were keen to move away from that negative image.”

McAlpine believed there was more value in the index – that the data could have a positive impact. “It’s not a tool by government to say look how deprived these areas are; it’s a tool for those areas to attract funding,” he says.

“There’s a lot of data people can use, for things like funding applications for social enterprises. People can use it to try to improve the situation.”

To get the message across McAlpine and his team had to present the data in an accessible way that was easy to understand and process.

They worked with UCL to map the data in a readable format, and felt they were able to successfully convey their message. “We wanted people to sit up and notice. There was a real public interest. People internally would question what the use of SIMD was, but now our policy colleagues have started to sit up and think, yes, we need to use this more.”

SIMD is used in research and development, and the team has provided support to areas such as the Child Poverty Bill and the Community Empowerment Act. While they’ve had an impact among their colleagues, the project has also had a direct effect on communities, McAlpine says.

“We’re trying to empower people with data to go and make positive changes in deprived areas. If you can bring together all those elements you'll have a real winning formula that can really make a difference.”

Since finishing the project, and when he’s not in his new role in agricultural statistics, McAlpine works directly with a deprived community in his hometown of Tullibody in Scotland’s central lowlands. He’s working with a community organisation that’s promoting healthier living there, and the organisation is using SIMD to look at the key issues in the town.

“There’s poor education in the area, health is one of the biggest deprivations there. The group is really trying to tackle some of these problems with education.

“Off the back of that they get funding for community gardens. They sell bags of food at a low cost to people who are struggling.”

For McAlpine, the SIMD project and the subsequent work he’s been involved in has always been close to his heart. “I’ve lived around deprivation and I have been deprived at points. There's 30 [deprivation] indicators, I've probably hit about 20 of them at some point in my life,” he says.

“Deprivation is a barrier to living a full life, and I do believe there are people who are living in deprived areas who cannot get on in life because they are living with these barriers.

“I think addressing some of these problems, and addressing some of the stigmas of living in deprivation is really important.”

Nominations are now open for the 2018 Civil Service Awards.

The Civil Service Awards Community is a new section on Civil Service World that aims to celebrate past winners, inspire people to nominate in 2018, and help us all to learn from good practice. If you’ve ever won or been shortlisted for an award, register your interest to hear about future events and projects for awards alumni