Statisticians help make the world go around

2013 International Year of Statistics celebrates discipline’s growing positive impact on a global scale.

By James J. Cochran and John Brocklebank


In 1976 Al Stewart had his “Year of the Cat” (the best-selling album featuring impressive engineering by Alan Parsons and distinctive work on alto saxophone by Phil Kenzie). Mel Gibson, Sigourney Weaver and Linda Hunt had their “Year of Living Dangerously” in 1983 (in which Hunt won an Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role). In 1992 the United States Senate had its “Year of the Woman,” which was christened so by President George H. W. Bush when, as a result of the 1992 elections, the number of female senators tripled (from two to six) and California became the first state to be represented in the Senate by two women (Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein). The Shēngxiào (or Chinese zodiac) has a rotating set of 13 years (the year of the Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog and Pig). And now statisticians have the 2013 International Year of Statistics. While statisticians should be pleased with this recognition, what does it really mean?

As is the case with operations research, the discipline of statistics has contended with its evolving place in society and shifting (and often inaccurate) public perceptions. Before statistics was a recognized scientific discipline, the word implied the development and use of official information on states and government. The word statistics comes from the German word statistik, meaning facts about the state. In the United States, the federal Constitution mandates collection of official statistics in the form of a decennial census. The census, which is collected by the U.S. Census Bureau (the primary statistical agency of the U.S. government), provides the basis for constructing districts for our legislature in a representative manner. In addition to the U.S. Census Bureau, the United States supports 13 other major federal governmental statistics agencies, including the Bureau of Economic Analysis, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Bureau of Labor Statistics and National Center for Education Statistics.

Over the past 15 years a broad shift has occurred within the statistics profession. Statistics is now generally viewed as a problem-solving field driven by new sources of data, large quantities of data and emerging computational techniques. As a result, students are now far more enthusiastic about studying statistics. One example of this zeal is the now-classic “Statz 4 Life” YouTube video that was created by college students to encourage their classmates to sign up for statistics classes.

Another source of this new enthusiasm for studying statistics is the analytics job market. In his Aug. 5, 2009 article for The New York Times entitled, “For Today’s Graduate, Just One Word: Statistics,” Steve Lohr provides an excellent summary of the recent dramatic growth in the market for professionally trained statisticians.

According to John Brocklebank, vice president of SAS Solutions OnDemand and a co-author of this article, the market demand for statistical expertise is higher than he’s seen in his 35 years at SAS, making it even harder to find talented field statisticians.

The increased demand, which is occurring worldwide, is creating greater pressure on universities to produce graduates who have a wide range of analytic skills. The challenge is to equip these graduates with the ability to apply a wide range of analytic tools as well as strong soft skills (communication skills, flexibility, ability to work effectively as a member of a team, etc.).

“Today’s employers are hiring workers who can hit the ground running,” SAS CEO Jim Goodnight states. “Innovation is moving to where the skills are, and 21st century employers are looking for workers who are proficient in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills. If we each do our part to ensure that statistics continues to show significant value through innovative applications in the industries where we work, maybe one day, kids will dream of becoming statisticians.”

Stats Run Hot in Our Blood

“It is proven that the celebration of birthdays is healthy. Statistics show that those people who celebrate the most birthdays become the oldest.”
– S. den Hartog, Ph.D. thesis,
University of Groningen
The 2013 International Year of Statistics gives us another reason to celebrate analytics. Statistics2013 ( is a worldwide recognition of the science of statistics. This celebration will bring government agencies, schools, professional organizations and businesses worldwide together to promote the many positive uses of statistics and other analytical techniques. The groups organizing the Statistics2013 celebration include:

These organizations set three key goals for Statistics2013: increase public awareness of the power and impact of statistics on all aspects of society; nurture statistics as a profession, especially among young people; and promote creativity and development in the sciences of probability and statistics. To meet these goals, organizations and professional societies worldwide are offering activities designed to encourage potential students to explore “the grammar of science” and help statistics students strengthen their will to succeed in this critical field.

In Africa, for example, where statistical applications are as rich and as varied as the cultures that comprise the continent, some organizations are focusing on statistical literacy outreach and capacity building efforts, while others are focusing on applications to important problems. As an outcome, consider the valuable dissertation research efforts of two students at the University of Limpopo:

  • “Managing Risk of Electricity Load Forecast in South Africa using Bayesian Inference” by Livhuani Nedzingahe
  • “Statistical Analysis of Extreme Floods in Mozambique Along the Zambezi and Limpopo River Basins Using Standard and Censored Data” by Daniel Maposa

Professor ‘Maseka Lesaona, director of the School of Mathematical and Computer Sciences at the University of Limpopo, will chair the annual conference of the South African Statistical Association (SASA) in 2013.

“This is the first time that the University of Limpopo (UL), or any other historically disadvantaged university in South Africa, will host the SASA Congress,” Lesaona says. “We at UL are ecstatic about the opportunity to host the conference and observe the International Year of Statistics in 2013. Given our institution’s strong collaboration with Statistics South Africa, the fact that South African Census 2011 results have been recently released, and that 2013 is the International Year of Statistics, we plan to match our theme to fit into these global celebrations.”

An Exciting Time to be a Statistician

Universities have long recognized that they are responsible for training graduate school level students of statistics to do basic research and to work on research teams, and that they must also meet the challenge of preparing future statisticians to work for organizations in the private and government sectors where statistics are used with ever increasing frequency to resolve societal problems and improve the human condition. Forward thinking academic programs are realizing that the distinction between these realms is blurring, and many of these universities are embracing this trend with great success.

When universities encourage and even facilitate interaction between their students and representatives of the private and government sectors, the students find interesting and meaningful research topics as a result.

Societal problems are ubiquitous, and statisticians are constantly finding new ways to contribute to solving these problems. They are collaborating and bringing their expertise to these efforts in innovative ways – the result is that the appropriate mathematical tools are being applied to these problems with much greater frequency than in the past to deliver superior solutions that are more robust.

Statistics is a vibrant, dynamic and evolving discipline; new approaches and methods for analyzing and learning from increasing volumes of data and addressing novel analytical challenges are developing at a rapid pace. Statistics and statistic software are playing vital roles in making the world a better place by analyzing and ensuring the integrity of data for countless individuals, businesses and government organizations. For example, Statistics Norway distributes statistical software to distressed countries, including Eritrea, Albania and Uganda, to help them analyze population, housing and income data. These developing nations can then analyze data, map the results, identify people’s most pressing needs and share the resulting information with government and non-government organizations to better target assistance.

U.S. educators use statistical software to provide interactive, standards-based, Web-based resources in English language arts, mathematics, science, social studies and Spanish for grades six to 12 in traditional, virtual and home schools. When doing, seeing and listening, these students access information and gain insights unavailable through conventional methods. So far, one such program has registered 70,000 teachers and 18,000 schools in the United States for its enhanced online education resources. High school graduates today must be tech-savvy problem-solvers prepared to navigate, read and comprehend digital content and is a powerful resource for teachers to deploy in a blended learning environment of technology and traditional instruction.

Another example of statistics improving our world is the Los Angeles County Data Mining Solution (DMS) for Child Care Welfare Fraud Detection. One of the largest county governments in the United States needed to uncover systemic fraud in its delivery of social services to economically disadvantaged citizens. The system analyzes social networks to help identify collusive fraud rings. Investigators can spot more cases of fraud sooner, resulting in fewer losses, lower investigative costs and greater public confidence. Total cost avoidance projected from the pilot results is expected to exceed $6.8 million.

In addition to these modern examples, more traditional applications of statistics for the society’s benefit include recent applications of statistics advancing processes in agriculture, manufacturing and medicine such as keeping children healthy through analysis of data to ensure vaccine consistency and safety, and discovering that lower teacher/student ratios coincide with higher rates of student attendance and engagement.

Progress takes time. With today’s statistics, it takes a lot less. Every day, organizations find powerful new ways to use statistics to understand complex issues, solve important challenges and improve the lives of millions of people around the world. The International Year of Statistics will provide an appropriate opportunity to recognize these contributions and encourage even greater use of statistics.

John Brocklebank is vice president of SAS Solutions OnDemand. He leads the SAS Analytics Lab for State and Local Government, which devises technology solutions for issues such as fraud, waste, tax collection, public safety and education. He spearheaded the use of the SAS cloud-computing center, and has overseen Los Angeles County’s successful child care benefits fraud solution, as well as anti-fraud implementations in North Carolina Medicaid, Washington Labor & Industries and the Louisiana Workforce Commission.

James J. Cochran, the Bank of Ruston Endowed Research Professor, Louisiana Tech University, is a Fellow of the American Statistical Association and recipient of the Mu Sigma Rho Statistical Education Award and the INFORMS Prize for the Teaching of OR/MS Practice. Cochran is the founding series editor for the Wiley Series in Operations Research and Management Science and the founding editor in chief for the Wiley Encyclopedia of Operations Research and Management Science. He is a co-founder and a past chair of Statistics Without Borders, and a former editor in chief of INFORMS Transactions on Education.