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

Mon, Aug 05, 2013 - Page 9

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.

STATISTICS EVERYWHERE

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.

Its research underpins the statistics that underpin our lives. If your house or car insurance rises (owing to new crime figures) or if the government decides that the majority of public opinion is in favor of gay marriage, it is probably because of research by the ONS.

What do the people behind the statistics look like, and what is the process that turns their lives, snapped in situations as surreal as the one above, into data? The ONS is habitually secretive, because it takes the confidentiality of its interviewees extremely seriously, but for the first time it has agreed to be observed at work.

So here is Masterman, on the fringes of Southampton, on the south coast of England. She has arranged to interview a young woman, but it is a boy in school uniform who answers.

His sister is not home “and she hasn’t texted my mom,” he said.

It is the first of the day’s many no-shows or no thank-yous. The next door opens, and a cloud of captive cigarette smoke heads for the exit.

“She’s out,” the man said. “I don’t live here.”

So the day goes on, Masterman driving around in her car with the sticker that reads “I don’t suffer from insanity, I enjoy every minute of it.”

Demand for information of the kind Masterman gathers is growing.

“We are surveyed more often now,” University of Southampton professor of research methodology Patrick Sturgis said. “It is partly to do with the Internet and the development of infrastructure to do this easily. We are asked more and more questions in different contexts.”

He has no citation, but quips: “You could do a survey asking people if they have been surveyed.”

This is not so far-fetched. The ONS canvasses opinion on how best to phrase its survey questions. It has ditched the word “nowadays” because young people found it old-fashioned.

By the end of the day, Masterman has completed only one full survey, of a student who was 70 percent happy. At the last house, there is no answer, but a knocking noise is coming from the garage. Masterman calls out and the door rolls up noisily.

“I’m a bit busy,” the man said, chalking his cue.

This seems a bare-faced fib, until he explains that he is practicing for pool trials.

“And I have recently had a hair transplant,” he said.

He wants to help another day. They make an appointment, exchange numbers, and the exchange feels like a promise, the numbers seal the deal. After all, most people have a faith in numbers that exceeds their faith in words.

This trust in numbers may help to explain why the language used to talk about data has been naturalized. It gets scattered and harvested, gathered, cut and cleaned. The author of The Philosophy of Information, Luciano Floridi, said there is an area of research that looks at information gathering as “information foraging,” as if data really were the good of the land, freely available and nutritious to anyone who knows where to look (such as Twitter and Google Trends, which the ONS now tracks in order to supplement and counter-check its own reckonings).

“We are no longer journeying round this strange tropical place known as [the] cybersphere,” Floridi said. “In the [19]90s the metaphor was the frontier — surfing, exploring. It was all about seeing the Web as a geographical space, not a personal space. Because we are settling down, biological metaphors become more natural. We are natives here now.”

At the ONS’ sprawling cellular base camp in Newport, south Wales, the corridors are long and all the doors bear long numbers, a decimalized warren. There is a number for everything here. In the Life Events, Mortality Analysis department a book, two inches thick, lists the code for every kind of demise — W27 means death by contact with a nonpowered hand-tool, L60.0 is an ingrowing nail, T63.4 is a centipede bite and so on. From birth to death, our lives are codified and digitized. Why?

“Data helps you make sense of a really complicated world. It helps you understand what is really going on, and separate that from anecdote, from spin, from misinformation,” ONS Director-General Glen Watson said.

As he sees it, British lives are built upon the work of the ONS. The thickness of water pipes that deliver your morning shower; the arrangement of roads that take you where you are going; the location of schools, offices, supermarkets; the stock on supermarket shelves. His faith in the ONS is personal as well as professional.

“I might — touch wood, I haven’t been — at some point in my life I might be diagnosed with cancer,” he said. “The first thing I’d want to know, I’d go straight to the ONS page on cancer survival rates. We publish all of that.”

When he talks about data, he cups his hands as if he has caught a butterfly.

In the Labour Force Survey office, an analyst is looking at the latest figures on a spreadsheet. Row upon row of digits fill the screen. Each row is a person. Each column is their answer to a question. There are 76 columns, but they would go on for ever if you wanted them to.

“You can’t fall off the edge of the world here,” the analyst, Mark Chandler, said.

Whatever an interviewee’s answer, there is a code for it. Person 1 has given the answer 31, which means they are retired from paid work. Someone else is a 2: self-employed. Here is a “25”: not in work, looking after their family or home.

These answers have been collected by interviewers like Masterman, and by the ONS call center in Titchfield, Hampshire, southern England. Listening in to telephone conversations, you can hear people combing the breadth of their circumstances in order to check the right box.

Which part of this gentleman’s body is worse for arthritis?

“Take your pick,” he said.

The plastic of his handset creaks as he gets comfortable.

“Today it’s the shoulder. It could be the knee, the arms, the legs, the hands,” he said.

THE OUTPUT

One operator is wrestling with the fact that a man does not know his daughter’s qualifications. A woman on another line is saying: “She’s dead, my lovely.”

All over the country, answerphones are clicking into action. Another operator is trying to find out if a woman is looking for work.

“It’s a difficult question, because if the job is rewarding I would like to work,” the woman said.

So is that a yes or a no?

“A no,” she decides, because no one should have to keep working until they are 70.

“It has been known to find people dead on the toilet at work when they are 65,” she said.

There is no box for that.

It is a funneling process, a sifting through a lifetime of all that has made a person the person they are, shaking out every irrelevance, until the only thing left in the sieve is an affirmative or negative.

To listen in to those conversations, and subsequently to see fragments of them pop up in an enormous grid of numbers, is a bit like witnessing people being fed into the Large Hadron Collider: lives churned and turned into statistics, a great big crunching and mashing (to use a favorite word of data analysts), a sort of digital dismemberment. You half-expect to hear screams, see a pool cue fly out and some veg on a tea towel, and the specter of a dead person on a toilet.

What is this great collider creating? What is the output of these weeks of combing streets and dialing numbers in search of cooperative people, and the subsequent weeks of chopping and reading the information they give?

The analysts have a printout showing employment.

“It’s going to add a dot here,” Chandler said.

He points to a space beyond the last little sphere in the sequence. This is where the new speck will go, small as a particle, vast as a miniaturized planet. The dot will be cut in myriad ways and replotted, scattering new solar systems across countless graphs.

“It sounds a bit creepy. A bit Orwellian, when you put it like that,” Sturgis said. “But of course these are anonymous answers. We are not interested in individual cases. What we are doing is making a map.”

Is it a double-edged comfort, that for all we are being surveyed, the surveyors are interested in only the type of individual?

On one hand “You can hide behind typologies. There is safety in that new sort of anonymity, which is no longer anonymity, but opaqueness behind proxies which pick you up well enough, but which do not really identify you as unique,” Floridi said.

There is danger in this kind of anonymity too.

“Next thing you know, because you are treating everyone as a kind of person, it becomes part of our culture. I fear that it might be changing our social interaction. And that would be sad,” he said.

If Floridi is correct, people will be kinds of people — figures — not only in public, on social media or in the files of administrative data, but in private encounters too and, perhaps, even in their own estimations.

Data collection has many useful purposes — it is not hard to see all those digits as the building blocks of our society — but it is also, to some degree, an exercise in collective vanity. As a public, we enjoy looking in the mirror that is held up to us. As individuals, we like to spot ourselves in the picture, find ourselves on a distribution line: are you more or less happy than the national average of 7.4 out of 10?

All these charts, tables and graphs are society’s selfies, snapshots taken from so many angles. Clearly we can not get enough of them; they are infinitely fascinating, and may help us to know our world better than ever before — so long as we do not lose ourselves looking.