Mon, Aug 05, 2013 - Page 9 News List

A nation’s people as seen in statistics

From crime figures to the GDP, teenage pregnancies to retirement ages, there is no corner of Britain that the Office for National Statistics does not reach, and the data it gathers shapes government policy

By Paula Cocozza  /  The Guardian, LONDON

Illustration: Yusha

The first door is opened by an elderly woman, barefoot in a long cotton robe. Some chopped vegetables have been laid out neatly on a tea towel in the lounge. The room smells of the kitchen. A cricket match is on TV, and she fumbles with the remote control for something less embarrassing, inadvertently putting on an adult channel instead. She has not yet spoken when the telephone rings, and then she talks in Gujarati for a good 10 minutes.

Her visitor, the woman sitting on the sofa doing her best not to look at the TV, is Jill Masterman, an interviewer for the UK’s Office for National Statistics (ONS) — the government department that publishes all those stories that tell us all about ourselves; how happy we are, how healthy, how much we work and earn, what we believe, and how well we brush our teeth. Masterman wants to ask the woman about her life and opinions. She has been randomly selected from a list of addresses themselves randomly selected from a randomly selected postcode. No one can volunteer to answer questions for the ONS: that would indicate a predisposition to being surveyed, which is the opposite of random.

At last the phone conversation ends and the interview begins. Masterman asks the ages of the woman’s children. It is a straightforward question, but the woman shakes her head sadly.

“Long time they are gone from here,” she said.

At what age did she leave school?

“I married when I was 18,” she said.

Her long fingers hang over the arm of the chair and scratch at the fabric.

Did you leave school long before you married? She rests her head on her hand.

“Can’t remember, can’t remember,” she said softly.

The telephone rings again. Eventually the second phone call ends, and Masterman asks: “How satisfied are you with your life today?”

This appears to be the final straw.

“If your husband isn’t here, if you live alone ...” the woman tries.

Then, “Leave it. I can’t do anything,” she said.

She asks to be allowed to sleep. It has taken 45 minutes to complete a fraction of the interview and the prospects of ever finishing it seem slim, but Masterman tells the woman she will come back another day.

Every record is worth perseverance. The more she gathers, the greater the value of the information.

As a society, we are continually measuring and being measured. Counting is a defense against the uncertain or unexpected — a deterrent against another economic crash, perhaps, or a forewarning of social unrest. It is a way of keeping step with a social landscape that is not only changing fast, but where the very idea of fast is perpetually outpacing itself.


The sight of a woman trawling through sorrows for a long lost date may seem an unlikely place to start, but the data collected from this and other doorsteps will help to form a picture of the way we are and what we think about all sorts of issues, from the sharing of personal information with supermarkets to the introduction of fees in family courts, which will be fed back to the government and, who knows, maybe influence policy.

Some may challenge its statistics, but if you live in Britain there is no such thing as a day untouched by the ONS. In the last month alone it has revealed that, by 2016, more babies will be born out of wedlock than in, that one in four people living in Britain’s largest cities is an immigrant, that we are happier than we were a year ago, and that there was no double-dip recession after all.

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