Data analysts are unsung heroes of the pandemic, without them our fight would be impossible

Numbers are powerful, knowing how the virus has affected everything from unemployment to antibodies has real-time consequences

Alison Pritchard
Thursday 11 February 2021 16:13 GMT
Stats have proved vital for decision-making during the pandemic
Stats have proved vital for decision-making during the pandemic (Getty Images)

As we look back at the year just gone, it’s impossible to ignore the impact Covid-19 pandemic has had on our lives.

The numbers have spoken for themselves in relation to contraction in GDP, recent unemployment rate at 5 per cent and air travel into the UK (for the year to October 2020) down 73 per cent on the same period in 2019.

Our data has demonstrated that an estimated 15.3 per cent of people in England currently have Covid-19 antibodies, and that 60 per cent of 16 to 29 year olds said their wellbeing is being affected by the pandemic compared with 32 per cent of those aged 70 and over.

This type of essential information and more has proved vital for decision-making during the pandemic; vital information that we simply wouldn’t have if it wasn’t for the careful and secure collection and analysis of data about our lives.

We’ve all relied on these daily numbers to help us understand the scale and impact of the pandemic. Like never before, we’ve seen how important good statistics and data are in order to understand issues that are far too big for us to get to grips in any other way.

In 2020 alone, the ONS released more than 1,000 publications, some relying on traditional surveys and others using existing data from across government and industry to provide vital information as it was needed.

This work hasn’t come out of nowhere. Over the last few years, we’ve been securely collecting and reporting more new anonymised data than ever before.

Access to extra information about deaths happening across England and Wales through the General Registrar’s Office has been crucial during the pandemic, allowing us to publish information on how it’s taking a toll on different ethnicities, the impact on key workers, and to produce detailed maps giving an idea of where the majority of deaths were coming from, helping to ensure resources could be focused where needed.

In 2020, all of this analysis was prepared within weeks rather than the traditional annual release of data, giving an early picture of what was happening. This helped ensure that policymakers could act to create change during the crisis.

This isn’t the only area in which we’ve been able to create quicker figures through new data. Working with private sector companies we’ve been able to paint a picture of how footfall in shops has been fluctuating on a weekly basis, giving an idea of how the retail sector has been affected.

Payroll data from HMRC and data from online job sites has given us an early insight into what is happening in the job market in close to real-time statistics, while anonymised location data from mobile devices allowed us to establish movement trends among the population, which could then be used to gain insight and inform the country’s response.

None of these quicker and new sources of data are a replacement for the long and hard work of creating official statistics such as GDP and our official measures for the labour market. However, they do give us much quicker insights, which means steps can be taken quickly to try and address problems earlier.

The pandemic has made clear that faster, new forms of information are critical in order to come to terms with the challenges we face today. Both anonymised and aggregated so no individuals or businesses are identifiable, these data are becoming a vital part of stats in a changing world.

At the Office for National Statistics, we are uniquely placed to be able to harness this information and safely make it available to the public. Thankfully, we were already doing this before the pandemic and 2021 will see us build on this work as we lead on a new cross-government project to ensure more existing data is readily available to be linked and used for vital research, without compromising data privacy and security.

Data provides us with unique insights. We need to make sure enough of it is readily available, giving us a head start when we meet the next set of challenges.

Alison Pritchard, ONS’ director general for Data Capability

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