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Crap IT means stats crew don't really know how UK economy's doing

Complexity = statistical snafus, says Professor Bean

Clunky IT systems at the Office for National Statistics (ONS) have contributed to inaccurate reporting of economic growth, according to an independent review of UK economic statistics.

The report (PDF), by Professor Sir Charles Bean of the London School of Economics, said the ONS's current technology estate "is in dire need of replacement."

"The complexity of ONS systems has probably also been a contributory factor to some of the recent statistical errors and corrections," the report said.

Different statistical outputs are produced in isolation and the supporting IT systems are poorly interconnected, with "hundreds of applications, on 25 different platforms," according to the report.

“Many of these are outdated or bespoke and costly to maintain. This complexity of the technology estate has impeded improvements to the core statistical and analytical functions and has been a constant source of frustration for ONS staff.”

It noted the continued use of multiple systems were causing pressures and strains on staff.

"ONS’s technology infrastructure needs to be transformed if it is to get the best out of the data it collects now and the large volumes of administrative data it may have access to in the future," it said.

Echoing the consultation, the report said the UK significantly lags many other advanced economies in its exploitation of data.

"This reflects both the cumbersome nature of the present legal framework governing the sharing of such data and a cultural reluctance on the part of some departments and officials to data sharing," it said, adding: "There should be a presumption that all publicly-held data is available to ONS for the purpose of producing economic statistics, except where there is a strong reason not to, for example for reasons of national security.

It said the ONS should also explore the potential for using new techniques of collecting and analysing big data, such as web scraping, text-mining and machine learning.

Last week the government said it wants to introduce legislation to make it easier for the Office for National Statistics to have access to citizens' information, as held by local authorities and government departments.

The report also mentioned the sharing, which it said "is unprecedented in scale and scope" and has "blurred" the ability of the body to measure economic activity in this area. ®

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