From tracking the early spread of coronavirus to superfast readings of the economy: how the ONS is making its numbers count

Better data is transforming official statistics and there is huge potential for it to help resolve large and pressing issues facing society, says the national statistician

ONS data science campus offices Photo: ONS/Open Government Licence 3.0

Official statistics are no longer just about surveys and tables of figures. As government statisticians, our mission now is to access all the available data and from it produce timely and detailed analysis that addresses key questions. The outputs of the Office for National Statistics are getting faster, more detailed and much more useful. Since 2016, the number of statistical releases and pieces of analysis produced each year by the ONS has doubled. This year has already seen our Data Science Campus at the ONS supporting government colleagues planning the response to the coronavirus outbreak. These same teams have also begun producing “superfast” readings of the country’s economic performance, based on a wide range of data including the latest traffic and shipping flows around the UK.

Satellite datasets are helping us understand changes in the value of our natural environment. Software tools that can provide data-driven analysis of text are being used in a variety of settings, like assessing the results of an international consultation on UK trade.

Working with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, we have been able to provide an estimate of the number of homeless people dying on our streets every year, putting pressure on policymakers to find a solution.


Elsewhere, we are using hospital data to develop new analysis to enhance our life expectancy statistics at a local level, to help local authorities reduce health inequalities across the country.

Access to tax data has helped us improve our measurement of earnings and incomes. Data from the Home Office, higher education institutions – and soon the Department for Work and Pensions – bolsters our estimates of UK migration, which for too long relied wholly on a passenger survey for which purpose it was never designed.        

Beyond the regular economic statistics for which we are known, our teams have been able to shine a light on areas including the risk artificial intelligence poses to traditional jobs, rates of student suicides, the gender pay gap and the decline of pubs across the UK. This has all been made possible due to improvements in the data we can access.

As we take steps into the next decade, there are large and pressing issues our society needs to resolve. Data and statistics can help to get to grips with the scale of these issues and give us insight into the daily lives of people around the country. As the baby-boom generation retires, our ageing society will continue to raise questions about how our public services can cope. Already we have noticed worrying trends as life expectancy improvement across the UK has slowed and stalled following decades of growth since the mid-19th century, which raise questions about why this is happening and if it will continue.

We have also been driving data innovation across government through apprenticeships and other initiatives, helping to make sure we have the data skills to continue developing new insights for the country. 

Yet there is still so much more we could and should be doing.

A huge amount of data is held in government departments, councils, health service organisations and the private sector. Important opportunities are still waiting to be accessed from the intelligent linkage of these administrative datasets.

Yes, there are justified concerns held by many around the sharing of this data. But as an impartial and independently supervised body, the ONS is uniquely placed to harness its power to provide detailed, timely and accurate insight to underpin the decisions that will shape our futures.

When I became national statistician last year, I was quoted as saying that this was my idea of “the perfect job”. I have joined the organisation at an exciting time, following a period of transformation over the last 10 years.  

We have built the foundations for exponential growth in the use of data and analysis to make sense of the world around us, informing voters, policy and businesses.

I remain excited about what can be achieved and look forward to working with colleagues across government to harness the benefits of data for the public good in 2020 and beyond.

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