ONS data science campus opens with “public good” mission

Data science campus opens at Office for National Statistics in Newport, south Wales with “public good” mission

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) has opened the Data Science hub chancellor of the exchequer George Osborne announced a year ago, on the back of the Bean report on the state of UK economic statistics.

Shortly before then, Cabinet Office minister Matt Hancock had hailed the emergence of a cluster of big data expertise in south Wales, around the Office for National Statistics in Newport.

Managing director of the data science campus Tom Smith said the hub broadly has two tasks: strengthening skills in data science for the Office of National Statistics, but also in delivery, and understanding what value can be gained from different types of data in terms of the UK’s economy and society.

Smith added: “What additional value can we gain from looking at commuter flows from mobile phone data? Or from local street-view imagery? Or  how can we better understand economic flows from satellite data?”

The campus is part of a £17m government investment that includes an ONS centre of excellence in economic statistics. The campus currently employs a team of 26, of whom 20 are data scientists, the majority coming from outside the ONS, said Smith. The plan is to have 55 to 60 staff in a year’s time.

“There is no single story in terms of their profile. We have mathematicians, physicists and some social scientists, and even someone who started out as an artist,” he said.

“ONS publishes data to support decision making in government already. This will open an extra window, more fine-grained or more timely – for instance, it could supplement the 10-yearly census.”

The Data Science Campus will work with national and international organisations from academia, government and business to deliver joint research programmes and to build UK data science capability, including providing funding opportunities for PhD candidates.

Smith cited work carried out by Swedish public health organisation Flowminder, presented at the opening of the campus, as an example of “data science for public good”. This showed a census of Afghanistan using satellite data, a country that has not had a formal census since the Russian invasion in 1979.

Speaking at the campus launch, national statistician John Pullinger said: “The wide range of training and learning programmes which the campus will offer will also be central to building data science capability across the UK. Through these actions, the campus will help us realise our vision of better statistics for better decisions.”

Read more about UK government data science efforts

Smith said the ONS will be putting staff through masters programmes in data science, and guiding a masters in data analytics for government.

Formally opening the new facility, Cabinet Office minister Ben Gummer said: “I have been very pleased and impressed to see how ONS is busy transforming itself into a 21st century data-driven organisation, a focal point for UK data science and an important provider of skilled jobs in south Wales. Now more than ever, the UK needs fast, precise economic data and it is encouraging to see how ONS and its people are rising to meet that challenge.”

The campus will work on projects inside five themes, under the collective titles of people, planet and prosperity: evolving economy; urban and rural; society; sustainability; and the UK in a global context.

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