Unknown quantities

The Wales Audit Office is surveying all elected councillors on PCC’s use of data.

The first item reads: “The data the council collects is of a high quality” to which members are offered a choice ranging from “Strongly agree” to “Strongly disagree”.

Unfortunately, with the county council’s data it is a case of never mind the quality feel the width.

A recent report on educational standards to the schools and learning scrutiny committee contained no fewer than 100 graphs and a dozen tables of figures.

And when the corporate scrutiny committee met last Tuesday it had before it a 74 page report on “Integrated Budget, Internal Control, Business Risk Management and Performance Monitoring – Q2 2017-18” which contains enough data to sink a ship.

Whether any of us members were any the wiser is another matter.

The problem with data is that unless it is passed through some sort of statistical filter it can be worse than useless.

Unfortunately, in everyday speech we tend to use data and statistics interchangeably, though they are entirely different.

Data is the raw numbers, while statistics refers to various techniques designed to tell what meaning, if any, can be extracted from the information.

At one extreme, this involves complex maths well above the pay grade of someone with my 1959-vintage ‘A’ level.

However, you don’t need to be a budding Einstein to determine whether the data means what it appears to mean.

A statistician would be keen to establish that both sides in any dispute are talking about the same thing.

For instance, earlier this year, in response to complaints that council houses were being allocated to tenants from outside Pembrokeshire, the housing department produced the following:

As can be seen, the number of lettings to non-locals is 1% or less.

So, on the face of it, the complaints were without foundation.

However, when I drilled down, as former leader Cllr John Davies likes to say, I discovered that local was defined as anyone who had lived in Pembrokeshire for twelve months, or more.

So anyone living for a year in private rented accommodation in the county is classed as a native.

That’s not quite how council tenants see it when a family from Walsall or Warsaw move in next door.

Another non-mathematical statistical test is to ascertain whether the apparent correlation between two factors may be explained in some other way.

For example, surveys show that university graduates were much more likely to have voted remain in the EU referendum.

This plays nicely into the theory that those who voted leave are a bunch of half-educated numpties.

However, the same surveys also reveal that the over-sixties were much more likely to have voted leave than the under-thirties.

And, of course, when these golden oldies left school only five percent of the cohort went on to university whereas nowadays its more like 40%.

So, in any comparison where age is a factor, the younger element will have more degrees than their elders.

Put another way, older, more experienced members of society are better able to appreciate the EU’s flaws than gullible, callow youths with Mickey Mouse degrees in media studies and the like.

Another bugbear of mine is the persistent misrepresentation of matters regarding renewable energy where, whether by accident or design, capacity is conflated with output.

So when you read that this or that wind turbine can power 1,000 houses you should keep in mind that my Ford Focus can do 100 mph.

The operative word is “can” because that represents the machine’s capacity when running flat out.

In fact, the average output of onshore wind turbines in UK conditions is a little over 25% of capacity and for a significant amount of time it is actually zero.