Unpicking statistics: the stories behind the numbers

By Vicky Simms and Andrea Rehman

Officially they are the Sustainable Development Goals. They’re better known as the Global Goals. One student, aged 14, has another name for them: the World’s Promises.

This student is in Year 10 at Maria Fidelis School in Camden where epidemiologist Dr Vicky Simms and statistician Dr Andrea Rehman from the Tropical Epidemiology Group ran a workshop to mark World Statistics Day on 20 October 2015. Challenged to answer the question “How can we make the world a better place?”, the girls came up with a wide range of ideas from clean energy to mental health care, which were then mapped onto the Global Goals. At the School, of course, we work towards Goal 3: Good Health and Wellbeing.

In the workshop the class explored how high quality data is essential to measure progress towards the Goals. Students thought about the challenges of collecting good data, by working out how to measure the number of babies born in the world every day. They also looked at some 1915 malaria figures from the School’s Archives to show how data were collected a hundred years ago. The class learned not to accept information at face value, but to assess whether it was reliable and relevant. Statistics can reveal whether the World’s Promises are kept.

The girls were engaged and inspired. Here is some of their feedback:

“It is one of the most educational lesson I have had and it is a chance where we can look in the world and contribute to the promises so there’s no death or suffering.”

“Overall I really enjoyed their presentation because I’d learned something new as well as important. Also I am more interested in the promises the world has made and how it will impact the world and will get better and better. They have inspired me to think about the world, think about what I’m doing to fulfil the world promises and if I am doing anything to help or if I’m doing enough.”

“This visit has increased my motivation to pursue a career in science.”

“We talked about child mortality and how it became reduced and how we would be able to put it into a chart and work out the data.”

‘The Global Goals is our chance to tackle endless problems around the world; but we can only do this together, as a team.”

“The session was good and improved my knowledge on global goals and how changes are made for the better.”

“It has opened more doors about what I thought about university research, e.g. population.”

Thanking Vicky and Andrea for their visit, teacher Gemma Mansbridge said: “The students produced great written work following the session, which showed how much they benefitted from your time.”

Andrea said: “I was impressed by how the students translated our examples into their reality and how connected they were with the topic. I really enjoyed questioning them to explore how data is collected and how data can answer important questions. Their honesty and ideas were very mature!”

Vicky said: “We are surrounded by statistics, so the ability to evaluate them is really important. The girls had so much passion and motivation to make a difference. It was a pleasure to help them learn the skills to do it.”

Image: Students at World Statistics day workshop. Credit: Gemma Mansbridge