A Small Island in a World of Big Data

Guest Blog – Paula McLeod, Statistician, Saint Helena Government

As a small island in a world of big data it is natural to try to compare our outputs with those of larger organisations and find ourselves lacking. We need to get past this and celebrate the immense value of the information we hold and the positive impact it has on those that it represents. We also need to recognise the value of support and advice from the wider data community.

I follow with great interest developments in the world of Big Data. I read with awe about the convergence of data, computer science, analytics and visualisation techniques and the revolutionary outputs that ensue and I feel… intimidated. My data is small. I can’t even claim that it is always perfectly formed. That said, my small data does a big job and does it well. We may not have the volume, variety, speed or complexity that defines Big Data but what we do have we do well. One of the benefits of being small is that, where the right systems are in place, we have access to a fantastic array of data and the flexibility to embrace changes. We are the yachts compared to big world oil tankers- while we can never match up in terms of power and momentum we do have flexibility to modify approaches, systems or direction – whatever is needed to make the most of the current situation.

Big Data Week 2016

As the Statistician for the British overseas Territory of St Helena I head up the team who produce the official Statistics for the island (a 10 x 5 mile rocky outcrop, population 4,600, situated at 15o56’S 5o43’W). In common with all small places there is a disproportionately high value in the information we produce and is it essential we get the details right- the outliers and oddities which can be lost in the volume and fleeting fluctuations of bigger data. Those facets represent the person we meet in the street, the sole business providing an essential service to the island or small group of households living on the breadline any of whom could be critically disadvantaged if the wrong decisions are made. How do we make sure the right decisions are made? By making sure we recognise the power of our data, small as it may be, and ensure that is worked to it’s full potential.

Over the last couple of years the use and appreciation of data on St Helena has grown considerably. Recognising the value of available data has enabled better decision making, monitoring and policy formation during a critical period of the island’s development. We have safeguarded against poverty by providing evidence of the inflation in the basket of goods and services which informs the Minimum Income Standard for St Helena. We have supported contract negotiations for airline and shipping services through and analysis of passenger and cargo arrivals. Implementing an electronic information management system within the Tax Office has allowed us to produce a complete analysis of income from employment. Supporting the team responsible for carrying out a livestock Census enabled us to provide timely evidence as to the effectiveness of selective breeding programmes for sheep and cattle. With increased local production being critical to the sustainable development of the island our data has provided evidence to support a revision of policy on import duty for selected agricultural imports. All of these seemingly small outputs have had a significant positive impact on the economic and social wellbeing of St Helena and her people.

The revolution in “small data” on St Helena enabled production of the Island’s first State of the Island report. Bringing together the fragments of data created something wonderful- an overview and insight into the key areas of wellbeing for the island. Taken in isolation none of the data stand out but bring them together and give credit for the timeliness of many of those data streams and it gives up a current insight, essential when the island is in a period of critical change.

The positive examples demonstrated through use of data are resulting in a greater awareness and a greater use of data throughout the St Helena Government and Private Sector. This timely access to key business intelligence is resulting in increasingly effective performance monitoring, improving governance through increased accountability and more reactive management. Again, the outcome of this is improved wellbeing which is what our data is all about.

Over the last two years there have been dramatic improvements in the accessibility, timeliness and quality of data on St Helena. These key elements of this success have been:
Staff development– equipping those responsible for data collection and analysis with the necessary knowledge and specialist technical skills. There is no replacement for academic qualifications but we are managing this alongside focused development to fill our key skills gaps.
Taking advantage of electronic information management systems wherever possible. Supporting the development and implementation of these systems has also ensured that in addition to improved business efficiency the administrative data are readily accessible for statistics, and neatly harmonised with our expected standards.
Raising awareness of just what good data can achieve. In a self-satisfying turn of events improved use of data leads to improved data. With a small nudge, support and encouragement we see our users embracing use and collection of data with better data we attract more users and so the cycle continues.

So there it is, a little insight in to a small island in a world of Big Data, how far we have come and how we are getting there. We have a long way to go and at the moment there is nothing certain about how we will get there. There are uncertainties around funding and staffing which could easily throw things off track- a distinct disadvantage of being small is that we have little capacity to absorb loss of key personnel. One thing I am certain of is that our success will rely heavily on the wider statistics and data communities. I frequently look for advice from many people- some provided directly but for the most part it is a quick comment or point in the right direction when I’m struggling to find the way forward. If you ever wonder if the methodology, summary report, snippet of code or experience you document in a blog is ever going to be read I can assure you that as one of the “small people” following you that it makes a huge difference. The support you provide by sharing what’s and how’s behind your latest output are of immense value- we don’t have to go at this alone and as with the wonders that come from Big Data there is a lot to be said for the Big Community that is making it happen.

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