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Statistics Professor Jessica Utts (right) at an international statistics conference in Sri Lanka. (Photo courtesy of the Daily FT)

What role do statisticians play in governing? A pretty important one, according to Statistics Professor Jessica Utts. The 2016 President of the American Statistical Association (ASA) gave a keynote speech in Sri Lanka titled “The Importance of Statistics for Good Governance and What the ASA is Doing to Help.” The speech was delivered in December at the Institute of Applied Statistics Sri Lanka International Conference (IASSL-IC), which was themed, “Statistics for Good Governance.” IASSL is a nonprofit organization that aims to support the professional development of statisticians and statistical education in Sri Lanka.

As reported by Shannon Jayawardena, Utts explained in her keynote that “good governance means making decisions that benefit the constituents in an efficient and effective way.” Regardless of the organization’s size or structure – whether you’re governing a nation or small club — “data and statistical knowledge should play a major role in the process of making decisions and setting policy,” said Utts. However, she also noted that this requires “good” data, and while “collecting massive amounts of data has become easy, collecting good data remains difficult.”

This is where statisticians can help in a variety of ways. First, Utts said that they can help organizations understand the difference between good and bad data, which is “crucial for good governance.” Second, they can help “educate people, ranging from politicians and policymakers to the general public, on the appropriate use and interpretation of data.” Finally, they can “play a major role in improving statistical methods for more efficient and accurate data collection and analysis.”

— Shani Murray