ONS opens £10 million hub to exploit digital data

Data Science Campus will work with business and government to make better use of big data

An Office for National Statistics (ONS) hub that will explore new digital data sources and technologies to improve the analysis and measurement of business and government data has today opened its doors for the first time in Newport, Wales.

The Data Science Campus, based at ONS's headquarters, will work with government, industry, academia and charities to provide statistics for policy makers, the public and businesses and position the centre “at the forefront of data science in the UK and beyond”.

It aims to make better use of big data using cutting edge techniques to produce more accurate and timely statistics, working to five research programmes – urban future, society, sustainability, the evolving economy and UK in a global context. Themes include international trade, population flows, the environment and economy.

Dr Louisa Nolan, senior data scientist for ONS (pictured) said: “The campus gives us the opportunity to explore other kinds of data like social media and internet data and bring it together with our own survey data. We will also use new tools and technology such as image recognition, machine learning and neural networks to do things a bit more experimentally.”

Digital economy measures

She said that the campus’s team of 26 – including eight of the UK’s first data analytics apprentices – would also look at the production of apps and will publish insights and papers. The campus will use data to measure changes in the UK’s digital economy. 

Several projects are already underway. Nolan said teams plan to focus on data from the financial sector, to get “more insight into financial activity,” as well as a project looking at the fishing industry. The latter will bring together datasets about what fish is landed and the impact on local economies.

She added that the team is working on a project using Google Streetview and neural networks (a computer system modelled on the human brain and nervous system) to analyse and identify urban trees to assess the 'green' extent of the environment in different towns.

The launch is part of the ONS’s programme to provide richer statistics to inform decision makers, part of a £17 million investment announced in March last year to help “meet the demands and challenges posed by the evolving economy and push the boundaries of data science research”. 

The establishment of the campus was a recommendation of Professor Charles Bean’s review which assessed the capability of ONS to deliver the UK’s future statistics needs, after which the then Chancellor George Osborne announced a pledge of £10 million to set up the campus in last year’s Budget . In his review, Bean was critical of the ONS's recent performance, saying it had ignored sources of big data.

The campus, whose motto is ‘data science for public good,’ is in talks with several national organisations with a view to building partnerships with them. It will also provide funding for PhD candidates and deliver joint research programmes with international partners.