On Stats, and “The Thing”…

Although I work from home pretty much all of the time anyway, I’m rubbish in online meetings and tend to get distracted, often by going on a quick web trawl for things related to whatever happens to be in mind just as the meeting starts…

So for example, yesterday, I started off wondering about mortality stats relating to “the thing”. Public Health England publish a dashboard with some numbers and charts on it but it’s really hard to know what to make of the numbers. You can also get COVID-19 Daily Deaths from NHS England reported against the following constraints:

All deaths are recorded against the date of death rather than the date the deaths were announced. Interpretation of the figures should take into account the fact that totals by date of death, particularly for most recent days, are likely to be updated in future releases. For example as deaths are confirmed as testing positive for COVID-19, as more post-mortem tests are processed and data from them are validated. Any changes are made clear in the daily files.

These figures will be updated at 2pm each day and include confirmed cases reported at 5pm the previous day. Confirmation of COVID-19 diagnosis, death notification and reporting in central figures can take up to several days and the hospitals providing the data are under significant operational pressure. This means that the totals reported at 5pm on each day may not include all deaths that occurred on that day or on recent prior days.

These figures do not include deaths outside hospital, such as those in care homes. This approach makes it possible to compile deaths data on a daily basis using up to date figures.

If the conditions for adding counts to the tally for covid deaths are people who test positive post mortem, then the asymptomatic boy racer who kills themself in a motorbike accident whilst making use of open roads will count, but that’s not really the sort of number we’re interested in.

The ONS (Official of National Statistics) look like they’re trying to capture the number of deaths where “the thing” is the likely cause of death (Counting deaths involving the coronavirus (COVID-19)), adding a Covid19 tab to the weekly provisional mortality stats release along with a related bulletin and covid19 deaths breakout collection:

I don’t think these stats are even labelled as “experimental”, so from my humble position I think the ONS should be commended on the way they’ve managed to pull this new release together so quickly, albeit with a lag in the numbers that results from due process around death certificate registration etc.

One thing that is perhaps unfortunate is that the NHS weekly winter sitreps stopped a few weeks ago; these stats track several hospital and critical care related measures at the hospital level, but they’re only released a few months a year. Whilst continuing the release would have added a burden, I think a lot of planners may have found them useful. (I hope the planners who really need them have access to them anyway.) By the by, some daily data collections relating to managing “the thing” were described in a letter from the PHE Incident Director at Public Health England’s National Infection Service on March 11th.

I also note the suspension of various primary care and secondary care data collections, which means that spotting various side effects of the emergency response activity may not be obvious for some time.

As far as the ONS go, they have published their own statement on ensuring the best possible information during COVID-19 through safe data collection as well as a special ONS — Coronavirus (COVID-19) landing page for all related datasets they are able to release.

[April 2nd, 2020: the ONS have also started publishing several more “faster” society and economic indicators.]

Pondering the ONS response, I started wondering whether there’s a history anywhere of the genesis and evolution of each ONS statistical measure. In my “listen to the online meeting as radio while doing an unrelated web trawl”, I turned up a few potential starting points relating the the history of official stats, including this presented paper on the evolution of the United Kingdom statistical system, which looks like it might have appeared in published form in this (special issue?) of the Statistical Journal of the IAOS – Volume 24, issue 1,2 .

The Royal Statistical Society’s StatsLife online magazine also has a History of Statistics Section tag which pulls up more possibly useful starting points…

Broadening my search a little, I also found this briefing on sources of historical statistics from one of my favourite sources ever, the House of Commons Library; in turn this led to a more general web search on "sources of statistics" site:commonslibrary.parliament.uk/research-briefings which turns up a wealth of briefings on sourcing UK stats in particular subject areas.

And finally, for anyone out there who does have proper skills in the area and the ability to commit resource, there are various initiatives out there looking for volunteers. In particular:

Others with less specific or specialist skill might consider many of the other opportunities for technical sprints in communities that might typically lack access to cognitive surplus in developer communities. For example, this initiative exploring and developing Digital Tools for churches during the Coronavirus. (Don’t let “churches” put you off: for “church” read “body of people” or “community” and go from there…)

Author: Tony Hirst

I'm a Senior Lecturer at The Open University, with an interest in #opendata policy and practice, as well as general web tinkering...

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