While many of us took a well-earned break over Christmas, others worked throughout to ensure there was minimal disruption to the vital services we all rely on. This was also the case for many of my colleagues at the Office for National Statistics, who have continued to produce the robust and timely data and analysis, such as the Covid-19 Infection Survey, that has become more important than ever in these challenging times.
As 2022 gets under way, this demand for rapid data will only increase. But what exactly will the year hold? If the last two years are anything to go by, it’s impossible to say with any certainty.
From the UK’s first survey to track the spread of a pandemic, to the use of de-identified mobility data from phone companies to assess the impact of lockdowns, the word “unprecedented” has become frequently used for good reason.
What we know for certain is that we will continue to source and work with new forms of reusable data from across government and beyond, combining traditional survey data with the likes of de-identified admin and industry data to ensure we can produce more of the robust, close to real time information that we’ve come to rely on in recent years.
Last year we produced more than 1,000 statistical bulletins that gave us a wide variety of vital insights, such as how people were feeling and coping during lockdowns; the ups and downs of our economy and our personal finances; the number of people out of work; the level of Covid-19 infection in our population; and the level of carbon dioxide emissions.
This year, we are building on our statistical outputs, with more close-to-real time economic stats, based on more experimental data sources such as supermarket scanner data; more environmental outputs in the run up to the next global climate conference in Egypt; and improvements to our measurements of the value of nature to the UK.
All our new products – alongside new initiatives like the UK Climate Change Portal, which brings climate statistics together in one place for the very first time – will be essential to understanding this year’s major challenges, such as rising food and fuel prices, the spread and impact of Omicron and efforts to achieve net zero and adapt to climate change.
It’s also more important than ever that we are able to look at our population as a whole, and that’s where the census comes in. The results of last year’s digital-by-default census will give us the richest picture across England and Wales for a point in time. Arguably, this was more important during the pandemic than ever as it provides an important foundation to ensure we make the most informed decisions.
But the full value of the census is when we use it alongside as many other data sources as possible, and that is exactly what we will be doing with areas like commuting habits to ensure the data remains the most relevant and timely.
Looking beyond the census results, we have set out our clear intention to provide more frequent and detailed population estimates using administrative data sources to give the most accurate picture of the UK in the years to come.
But it’s not all about introducing and releasing new data; over the last couple of years we’ve demonstrated the immense value of engaging more widely across all sections of society, so this year we’ll be progressing our new plan of action to transform the inclusivity of UK data and evidence to ensure everyone is counted. This will include feasibility work on how new data sources can be used to fill data gaps, and initiatives to identify currently under-represented groups of people in data, including collaborative work with other departments and devolved administrations to improve data on people not living in households.
Last but not least, our other top priority for 2022 will be to ensure teams at ONS and across government have the best tools, infrastructure and data to meet the ever-increasing need for more rapid but robust stats and evidence. We’ve made a great start, with ONS continually sourcing new types of data for faster and more detailed insights, but now we’re taking steps to forge a new culture of secure data sharing and analysis with the development of the new Integrated Data Service.
Building on the success of our well-respected Secure Research Service, which has been securely providing a variety of de-identified data to accredited researchers for more than 15 years, the IDS will make a huge variety of ready to use data, from across government and beyond, accessible to approved analysts through a secure, multi-cloud environment. The service will allow more detailed analysis to be delivered at pace and provide policymakers with the best possible evidence to make vital decisions that benefit everyone, whilst continuing to protect personal information.
Data driven decision making has never been more critical, so it’s just as important to continually look outwards, question the data and methods we’ve used before, and challenge ourselves to do even better. I look forward to working with colleagues from across government throughout the year to build on the great strides we’ve made and to ensure our decision makers continue to have the robust and timely data needed to address the challenges of the day.
Prof Sir Ian Diamond is national statistician and chief executive and permanent secretary of the UK Statistics Authority