Bangers and Mash Up

Here’s the poster from my local Sainsbury which displays what I shall call a “calco”, a mis-calculation, the numerical equivalent of “typo.”

Now £3.79. Was £4.29. Save 70p.

Actually that should be save 50p.

Or should it? All we can tell is that these numbers are not consistent with each other, and so any one could be wrong. Interestingly there’s no way of knowing on the face of it which of the numbers is wrong…might just need to buy some sausages and mash to find out.

But all is not lost. If we want to assume that only one of the three numbers is wrong, then by means of mathematical deduction, we can go as far to say that we would save 50p or 70p.

The fact that this error found its way on to the shop floor of a national chain is no mean feat. The poster will have been through some design, create, print, and probably approval process. Then distributed to stores and then shop floor and no one noticed this simplest of errors. Especially when you consider that the primary objective of the poster would appear to be to make a specifically numerical point.

Also makes me think that perhaps we need a “maths-checker”, the numerical equivalent to a spell checker. It would identify the numbers in prose and check for some sort of mathematical relationship.

National Spend Trend

The Comprehensive Spending review outlines the government spending over the next five years, from 2010/11 to 2014/15. Total spending this year is £697 billion, including £43 billion (6.2%) in debt interest payments.

The emphasis around this has been focused on cuts in order to reduce our debt. However, counter-intuitive as it might be, the key Treasury figures in the CSR show that total spending increases over this period, as does the debt interest.

1. Total Spending… increases…6.2%

Total spend in 2014/15 will be £740bn, an increase of £43 billion or 6.2%. (Given these are such big and critical numbers, it is wonderfully coincidental that this the same as the current level of debt interest payments).

2. Debt Spending…. increases even faster…46%

That total spending includes debt interest, which increases from £43bn to £63bn, an increase of 46% over the five years. So debt interest is increasing faster (46%) than the overall spend (6.2%).

3. Total spending excluding debt… increases more slowly…3.6%

When debt is excluding from total spending, the percentage increase in spending nearly halves to 3.6% (from 6.2%). That’s an increase from £654bn to £677bn over the CSR period.

4. Debt as a proportion of spend…increases…to 8.5%

Over the CSR period, that 45% increase in the debt spending means that debt as a proportion of total spend increases from 6.2% to 8.5% by 2014/15 .

5. Overall…increases, especially debt.

So, spending is increasing in absolute terms, but debt spending is increasing faster, so debt is a bigger proportion of spending at the end of the CSR than at the beginning.

6. And inflation….means reductions.

There will be an inflationary factor to take into account but these overall figures provide a relative picture. But this analysis is based on the figures as presented in the CSR.

The latest inflation figures from the Bank of England show inflation at 3.1%, above the 2% target. Assuming 3% year on year inflation over the life of the CSR means that the £740bn in 2014/15 is actually worth around £657bn in real terms. So compared to the £697bn in 10/11, a reduction of £40bn or 5.7%. Substituting 2% inflation makes this £11bn or £1.6% reduction.

Sources: Bank of England: Inflation Report November 2010. 10.11.2010. HM Treasury: Comprehensive Spending Review 2010. 20.10.2010

Analytical Ecologist

Having been both a producer and user of official statistics over the years - more classically described as the “gamekeeper” and “poacher” roles - this has provided deep insight into both perspectives.

This in fact gave me the luxury of occupying a middle ground, which I can only describe as “ecologist”. In data terms I would define this in simply as...

…understand about today for the benefit of tomorrow.

In fact there is a real balancing act. As with ecology balancing ‘protection’ and ‘exploitation’, and as with ecology seeking the desired state of dynamic equilibrium.

So perhaps a more mature approach would be a coalition, between gamekeeper and poacher for a mutually beneficial dynamic.

What's in a job title?

Or more specifically what words are the the job titles of the top paid public servants?

The government published the roles and salaries of those top 345 public servants earning over £150,000 (pro rata per annum). A total paybill of £58m (More on that another time).

Interested to see for the first time in one place, the variety of titles for the top jobs. So what are the words that are most used to describe the nation’s top public jobs? Well a perfect job for the trusty word cloud.

get the graphic

A strong showing from the generic words me might expect – Chief, Director Executive. Then it’s mostly the terms with more public sector nuance….Officer, General, Secretary, Permanent, Chairman, before a very broad scattering of other more specific roles.

In one relatively simple approach the word cloud typifies the challenge for numerical analysis. Take some words, do the crunching and convert back to words. The wordcloud approach does this so simply and elegantly, and we seem to intuitively understand what’s going on (technically summing and weighting), without having to get into any numbers.

Actually, the world cloud does not provide the message, just the visualisation that allows us to distil the message(s). Overall the datacloud is a neat ambassador for the data analysis challenge.

See Guardian DataBlog: In Full the Highest paid Civil Servants. 1 June 2010

Order Order

So in the Houses of Parliament, it's Prime Ministers Questions that gets most of the news. But a lot of the deeper and more searching work is conducted in the committee rooms with the various Select Committees.   They typically cut to the quick, and are wonderful combination of  authority, focus and personality.

No one is out of scope for the select committees.   Ministers, Chief Constables and Chief Executives get "invited" to attend to "give evidence" and be "witnesses".  And there are often the charismatic and forthright committee chairs, that take no prisoners.  So there's a couple of examples below.

And with recent cases of witnesses correcting themselves some time after giving evidence, some committees are now seeing fit for some witnesses to take the oath, with hand on the bible, "to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth".  That makes it purgery for anything that not the truth there and then.   It's a powerful turn of phrase to set the scene for the witness..... "The Clerk will now administer the oath to you"

Not only is there strong directness but the role of evidence and data seems to be getting more profile.  Here's a couple of examples of the staggeringly direct and demanding challenge from the committee chairs.

Public accounts Committee on Out of hours GP services in England

Monday 1st September 2014.

The audit commission reported on this topic...  Out-of-hours GP services cost an estimated £400 million in 2013-14 and an estimated 90 per cent of GP practices have opted-out, and delegated the service.

Again here's the committee purpose...."This inquiry will challenge the Department and NHS England on their oversight and assurance of out-of-hours GP services, on the performance of the system and on the level of public awareness of out-of-hours GP services."

Oversight is such a great term with its different definitional options. It's both "overview" and "overlooked".  Can be great to describe "overview" but infer over "looked".  That feels like the case here.

So Margaret Hodge is in the chair, questioning the Chief Exec of NHS England, and the Director of Acute Care

"You should know it. With the greatest respect"
  • "You out to have the basic data rather than just give an example"

  • "You see, you don't have data on anything"

"You don't know it's value for money. You don't know because you don't understand your cost base.
"You're creating an absurdity of it"
"I don't know what that means. It's a non answer".

Hodge referring to whistleblower evidence..
"The data that was being provided was falsified....there was no monitoring through the system that enabled that to emerge"
Then some super lines from Richard Bacon...
"The chairs question was about cost not quality" 
"That was not my question neither was it Mr Pugh's"
"That was the question to which we were looking for an answer...and it was striking to me that you didn't know that."
"You need to understand your cost base and I don't think you do.  You have to understand your underlying cost base and you don't".
And some back and forth from John Pugh creating a turn around answer.....
Pugh... "Have you done any drilling down into the figures?" 
Willet... "We haven't got a breakdown and we don't know the individual breakdowns and the individual consultations and ratios" 
Pugh..."But I'm surprised at that as that's quite a key factor to know on terms of integration of services" 
Willet..."Those data better understood locally.  There's going to be a variation from locality to locality" 
Pugh..."But a variation is a concern". 
Willet... "And that's were we have to get to measure the all fragments in the same way.  Look across the system to see how it's performing"
And then the build up to a strong challenge....
Willet... The "local health economy working with the public will need to decide how best they want to provide and offer the service and what is the best arrangement.   Walk in centres remarkably different, across the country where they were what they did, whom they were supported by".
Pugh... "You didn't have information centrality on the extent to which GPs were sub-contracting".
Willet ..."We have a complete inventory of the whole country and we can tell you exactly what the position is"
And then comes the simply sublime intervention from Sir Aymas Morse - Comptroller and Auditor General of the National Audit Office - responding to a real sense of flippancy from Willet in that last response.
"That's really great.  So you're collecting more information.  All we're trying to push you towards is to make sure the information is sufficiently coherent that you know whether the out if hours service is value for money or not.  We're not telling you to collect all the info that could possibly be asked for everywhere  in the world or things that are burdensome. Just asking you take a logical approach to putting something together that allows you to make good judgements at the centre. Is that fair?"
 "And we agree with that" Stevens

Home Affairs Select Committee on Child sexual exploitation in Rotherham .

Tuesday 9 September 2014

Chaired by Keith Vaz and "taking evidence" from the previous Chief Constable.

There's a clue of what's to come in the pre-committee published purpose from Keith Vaz.  "The Committee will be questioning those in positions of authority at the time that these offences were being committed on how the sexual exploitation of children on a horrifying scale was allowed to go unchallenged for so long."

Here's some Vaz statements to the previous Chief Constable.

"That's an interesting point. It's not born out by the facts" 
"I don't think your treating these proceedings with the respect they deserve". 
"How would you know that Mr Hughes, when your telling this committee that you don't know about anything else and can't remember anything else" 
"We find your evidence totally unconvincing"
And some reference to the data from the previous Chief Constable.
"Improvement"..."That's not some sort of numerical idea".  "You look at recorded crime figures you look at the data to establish the problems". There were "good relationships with Local Authorities and others who would bring data to me". "I had no knowledge of this". 

Comprehensive Spending Review - Big Picture

Well maybe a small picture with big numbers on.

The Comprehensive Spending Review outlines the government spending over the next five years, from 2010/11 to 2014/15. Starting with a total government expenditure of £697 billion pounds in 2010/11, increasing to £740 billion for 2014/15.

Big numbers, or so we might think, but that is of course a relative statement which can only really be based on their broader numerical context.

With no one place to get a simple big picture of that broader context, I’ve put together my own one page graphical version.

Drawing on data from HM Treasury, and Office for National Statistics, the £697bn for 2010/11 sits alongside our Gross Domestic Product - the total value of goods and services produced in the country - our national debt, and the sources of government income that funds the annual spending as laid out in the CSR.

"You mean your statistics are facts, but my facts are just statistics"

A great quote from the TV series Yes Minister, which seems to capture both sides of the case for data. Using a small number of words to capture a larger sense of meaning, in the same way that a few numbers can do the same.

Here are a few of the quotes I've collected, which start to illustrate both sides of the case for data and statistics.

We are so often using words to describe statistics but can these series of quoted words, blending the profound with the popularist, and historical and even humorous, capture the essence of the world of statistics....

So the case for....

Statistical thinking will one day be as necessary for efficient citizenship as the ability to read and write. H G Wells

You cannot ask us to take sides against arithmetic. Winston Churchill

Errors using inadequate data are much less than those using no data at all. Charles Babbage

It is by the art of Statistics that law in the social sphere can be ascertained and codified, and certain aspects of the character of God thereby revealed. The study of statistics is thus a religious service. Florence Nightingale

It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Sherlock Homes

And the case against...

If you want to inspire confidence, give plenty of statistics. It does not matter that they should be accurate, or even intelligible, as long as there is enough of them. Lewis Carroll

There are no facts, only interpretations. Frederick Nietzsche

The War Office kept three sets of figures: one to mislead the public, another to mislead the Cabinet, and a third to mislead itself. Herbert Asquith

Facts are stubborn, but statistics are more pliable. Mark Twain

The only statistics you can trust are those you falsified yourself. Winston Churchill.

So not clear cut, useful at times, useless at others. The secret is to be able to tell the difference.