Posts written by Atakohu Middleton (110)


Atakohu Middleton is an Auckland journalist with a keen interest in the way the media uses/abuses data. She happens to be married to a statistician.

February 2, 2017

CensusAt School kicks off next Tuesday

As many of you may already know, the Department of Statistics runs the magnificent, biennial CensusAtSchool TataurangaKiTeKura, a national statistics literacy programme in schools supported by the Ministry of Education and Statistics New Zealand. Students aged 9 to 18 (Year 5 to Year 13) use digital devices to answer 35 online questions in English or te reo Māori about their lives and opinions. The aim is to turn them into data detectives – and turn them on to the value of statistics in everyday life.

Pakuranga College visit by Minister of Statistics and local MP Maurice Williamson, to see Census At School 2013 in action with teacher Priscilla Allan's Year 9 digital maths class, along with co-directors of the programme from The University of Auckland, on Monday 6 May 2013, Auckland, New Zealand.  Photo: Stephen Barker/Barker Photography. ©The University of Auckland.

Photo: Stephen Barker.  © The University of Auckland.

The latest edition of CAS starts next Tuesday, February 7, after the Waitangi Day holiday, and we’re hoping to get more than 50,000 Kiwi students taking part, which would be a record since CAS started in Aotearoa in 2003. Registrations have been open for a few weeks and are piling in, and I can see that so far we have 780 teachers from 507 Māori-language and English-medium schools registered – and there’s also a school from the Cook Islands, Tereora College. Check out if your local school is involved here.

CAS started as a pilot programme here, in 1990, run by Sharleen Forbes. As an international educational project, it started in the UK in 2000, and now runs in the UK, New Zealand, Ireland, Australia, Canada, South Africa, Japan, and the US. Good ole NZ, still punching above its weight in stats education.

There are questions common to all the censuses so comparisons can be made, but there are locally-specific questions as well – you can see the list of questions here. This year, we’re asking students about topics such as whether they get pocket money, and how much; whether there is there a limit on their screen time after school; and if anything in their lunchbox that day had been grown at home. In each census, students also carry out practical activities such as weighing the laptops and tablets they take to school and measuring each other’s heights, as in the picture of these Pakuranga College students. From mid-June, the data will be released for teachers to use in the classroom.

As this census is the only national picture of how kids are feeling, what they’re thinking and what they’re doing, journalists love the stories that flow from the results. The publicity isn’t only fascinating – it helps raise awareness of the value of statistics to everyday life. With any luck, some of the kids who do this year’s census will end up being our statisticians of tomorrow.

November 23, 2016

Indigenous data – why is it important?

andrew-sporle tahu-kukutai-240712In a data-driven world, indigenous peoples are becoming increasingly concerned about who owns and represents statistics about indigenous people: that is, who has access to the data, its cultural integrity, and how people’s privacy and autonomy is protected.

Not only do governments collect data about their citizens, but so, too, do indigenous peoples about themselves – just think of the data that iwi need to collect about their own people in this post-settlement era. As an example, I’m a registered member of Waikato-Tainui. The central administration knows six or so generations of my whakapapa because becoming registered means putting your links on paper that a kaumatua then signs off. It knows my home marae and all sorts of personal details such as where I live and my birth date. As I have been the privileged recipient of educational scholarships from the iwi, it also knows my academic record and quite a lot of personal stuff about my goals and aspirations.

So why is this important? Indigenous people have historically had a problematic relationship with researchers, academics and other data collectors. Researcher Andrew Sporle, pictured at right (Rangitāne, Ngāti Apa, Te Rārawa) recently told me that “From a Māori perspective, we were all too often the researched, not the researchers, and Māori realities were often portrayed as a strange and inferior ‘other’. Indigenous peoples are asserting the right to govern and protect the data that are so important to our development. We cannot afford to lose control of data about us.”

Data, he added, is a “highly valuable strategic asset” for Māori development. “In the age of big data, Māori want access to data to support our decision‐making and to be involved when big data is used to make decisions about us.”

In this field, things have been moving fast of late, and New Zealander statisticians are among the leaders.  Andrew and Tahu Kukutai pictured left (Ngāti Maniapoto, Te Aupōuri), Associate Professor at the Institute of Demographic and Economic Analysis, University of Waikato, are among the founding members of Te Mana Raraunga (the Māori Data Sovereignty Network), which was set up last year to assert Māori rights and interests in relation to data.

The group’s guiding motto is “He whenua hou, Te Ao Raraunga; Te Ao Raraunga, He whenua hou”, or “Data is a new world, a world of opportunity.”  It advocates “for the development of capacity and capability across the Māori data ecosystem, including data rights and interests, data governance, data storage and security, and data access and control”.

Andrew and Tahu attended last month’s  Indigenous Open Data Summit in Madrid, Spain, alongside independent statisticians Kirikowhai Mikaere (Tūhourangi, Ngāti Whakaue) and James Hudson (Ngāti Pukeko, Ngāti Awa, Ngāi Tai, Tūhoe), a researcher for Auckland Council’s Independent Māori Statutory Board. The summit, a first of its kind, provided a forum to discuss what action was being taken to protect the use of data about indigenous peoples.

Tahu and John Taylor, Emeritus Professor at the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research at the Australian National University,  have edited the just-released first book on indigenous data, titled Indigenous Data Sovereignty – Towards an Agenda, published by ANU Press.

It’s free to download and provides a comprehensive overview of why indigenous oversight of data is important, focusing largely on Australasia. It’s an interesting read and provides a perspective on data that has been missing for too long.

The local contributors include Darin Bishop (Ngāruahine, Taranaki), team leader of organisational knowledge at Te Puni Kōkiri, the Ministry of Māori Development; Dickie Farrar (Whakatōhea, Te Whānau ā Apanui, Te Aitanga ā Mahaki), CEO of the Whakatōhea Māori Trust Board;  James Hudson, mentioned above; Maui Hudson (Ngāruahine, Te Mahurehure, Whakatōhea), Associate Professor in the Faculty of Māori and Indigenous Studies at the University of Waikato; GP Rawiri Jansen (Ngati Hinerangi); Lesley McLean (Whakatōhea, Te Whānau ā Apanui), tribal database coordinator for the Whakatōhea Māori Trust Board; and leading demographer Ian Pool, Emeritus Professor at Waikato University.



August 23, 2016

So where did the word ‘statistics’ come from?

Yes, the book about the history of statistics has been written, in case you were wondering. A History of Statistics in New Zealand was published in 1999, with funding from the New Zealand Statistical Association and the Lotteries Commission of New Zealand. H S (Stan) Roberts edited the history, and wrote substantial sections. It’s now available for free download here – the usual caveats about attribution apply. And it opens by tracing the history and usage of the word statistics:

“Statistics”, like most words, is continually changing its meaning. In order to find the meaning of a word we tend to reach for a dictionary, but dictionaries do not so much “define” the meanings of words, but rather give their current usages, together with examples. Following are examples relating to statistics taken from the 1933 Oxford English Dictionary (13 Vols). Note that in each entry the date indicates the first usage found.

Statism: Subservience to political expediency in religious matters. 1609 – “Religion turned into Statisme will soon prooue Atheisme.”

Statist: One skilled in state affairs, one having political knowledge, power, or influence; a politician, statesman. Very common in 17th c. 1584 – “When he plais the Statist, wringing veri unlukkili some of Machiavels Avioxmes to serve his Purpos then indeed; then he tryumphes.”

Statistical: 1. Of, or pertaining to statistics, consisting or founded on collections of numerical facts, esp. with reference to economic, sanitary, and vital conditions. 1787 “The work (by Zimmerman) before us is properly statistical. It consists of different tables, containing a general comparative view of the forces, the government, the extent and population of the different kingdoms of Europe.” 2: Of a writer, etc: Dealing with statistics. 1787 – “Some respectable statistical writers.”

Statistician: One versed or engaged in collecting and tabulating statistics. 1825 – “The object of the statistician is to describe the condition of a particular country at a particular period.”

Statistics: In early use, that branch of political science, dealing with the collection, classification, and discussion of facts (especially of a numerical kind), bearing on the condition of a state or community. In recent use, the department of study that has for its object the collection and arrangement of numerical facts or data, whether relating to human affairs or to natural phenomena. 1787 – Zimmerman – “This science distinguished by the newly-coined name of Statistics, is become a favourite in Germany.”

Statistic: The earliest known occurrence of the word seems to be in the title of the satirical work “Microscopium Statisticum”, by Helenus Politanus, Frankfort (1672). Here the sense is prob. “pertaining to statists or to statecraft”.

The Concise Oxford Dictionary (1976) gives us two modern usages.

Statistics: 1. Numerical facts systematically collected 2: Science of collecting, classifying and using statistics. The first verse of a poem composed in 1799 by William Wordsworth, and entitled, “A Poet’s Epitaph”, successfully clarifies this difficult matter.

Art thou a Statist in the van
Of public conflicts trained and bred?
First learn to love one living man;
Then may’st thou think upon the dead.


August 15, 2016

New Zealand at the top of the (per-capita) table

On a medals-per-capita basis, New Zealand now ranks at the top of the table with two gold medals and six  silver at the Rio Olympics, Statistics NZ said today.

With eight medals overall at the half way stage at Rio, New Zealand is the highest performing country, with the equivalent of 1.77 medals for every one million people.

Slovenia is second on 1.45 medals for every one million people. Hungary and Denmark are third and fourth respectively, with Fiji coming in fifth based on its one gold for the men’s rugby sevens win.


However, on a per-capita basis for gold medals alone, Fiji tops the table, with its one gold for a population of just under 900,000. On that basis, New Zealand’s two gold medals leave it in sixth place, with a population of more than 4.5 million.

During the weekend, Mahe Drysdale’s single sculls gold medal was the high point for the New Zealand team.

On Saturday, New Zealand won two silver medals, for shot-putter Valerie Adams and at the rowing where Genevieve Behrent and Rebecca Scown also picked up a medal in the pair.

See the SNZ data here:

June 2, 2016

Ross Ihaka talks about a special virus: R

timthumb.phpHow did the statistical programming language R grow from a simple help-out for undergrad students to a global sensation? Associate Professor Ross Ihaka (right) of the University of Auckland tells the story in the latest issue of alumni magazine Ingenio.

And … here is some niceness from a fan who has read the story today. Thanks, Mike!Capture

March 9, 2016

Making it truly better by bus

Tom ElliottAuckland commuters know the frustration well: You’re waiting for a bus, and the electronic board shows it’s three minutes away. Ten minutes later, you’re still standing there, wondering what’s going on. Or the board may say a bus is 10 minutes away – but it suddenly turns up when you’re not paying attention.

Department of Statistics doctoral student Tom Elliott, pictured, also knows that irritation well – he was once a regular bus user – and his PhD research aims to come up with a model that leads to better predictions. Read the full story here.

February 12, 2016

Meet Statistics summer scholar Rickaan Muirhead

Rickaan MuirheadEvery summer, the Department of Statistics offers scholarships to a number of students so they can work with staff on real-world projects. Rickaan, right, is working on pōhutukawa regeneration at Tiritiri Mātangi with Professor Chris Triggs. Rickaan explains:

“Tiritiri Mātangi is an offshore island in the Hauraki Gulf which, since 1984, has been undergoing ecological restoration, led by Supporters of Tiritiri Mātangi. Due to the capacity for pōhutukawa trees to support the early growth of native ecosystems, they were planted extensively across the island at the outset of the project.

“However, the pōhutukawa survival rate was much better than expected, resulting in dense pōhutukawa-dominated forests with almost no regeneration of other plant species. So pōhutukawa stands were thinned to encourage the natural diversification of the plant and animal communities beneath.

“To gauge the success of this endeavour, monitoring of plant regeneration and changes in bird and insect populations has been underway since 2010. A significant amount of data has now been collected, which I will analyse during my research to explore the regeneration of plant, animal and insect communities in these transformed pōhutukawa forests.

“The science surrounding ecological restoration is a hot topic worldwide in the face of exceptional rates of deforestation and extinction. The Tiritiri Mātangi project has captured the interest of the international conservation movement due to its innovative scientific and public-inclusive practices. This project will thus inform both local and international science surrounding restoration ecology, as well as support this valuable eco-sanctuary.

“I graduated in early 2015 with a Bachelor of Science, specialising in Quantitative Ecology and Modelling. I have just completed a Postgraduate Diploma in Science in Biosecurity and Conservation, and will be undertaking Masters study this year exploring Quantitative Ecology.

“I was initially drawn to statistics as it is very useful, and ubiquitous in life sciences. However, during my studies I’ve gained a much greater interest in its inner workings, and have found applying my knowledge exceptionally rewarding.

“In my spare time this summer, I’m hoping to get involved with some conservation projects in the community and read some novels.”


January 27, 2016

Meet Statistics summer scholar Xiangjie Xue

XiangjieEvery summer, the Department of Statistics offers scholarships to a number of students so they can work with staff on real-world projects. Xiangjie, right, is working on vector generalized linear and additive models (VGAM) for R with Dr Thomas Lee. Xiangjie explains:

“I am trying to help Dr Yee to improve the functionality of the VGAM package. This includes writing some functions from scratch, improving the efficiency of the existing functions and testing functions. To do this, I will need to learn the underlying structure of R and write or translate some functions from other computing languages to C or R.

“I came to the University of Auckland to do my undergraduate Applied Mathematics and Operations Research in 2012.

“After I finished, I received offers to do both Applied Mathematics and Statistics. When I was trying to decide the topic of my Honours project, I realised that Statistics covers a very broad range of topics and that they are very closely related to each other – I could learn data analysis, computing or probability theory and stochastic processes. All of these topics are really useful in our daily lives. I was really fascinated by this, so I decided to study Statistics instead of Applied Mathematics. I am thinking about pursuing a masters degree or a PhD in Statistics this year.

“This summer, I am hoping to travel more in New Zealand. In fact I went camping recently with my high-school friends in Whangarei and the Bay of Islands region and I had a great time. Besides travelling, I’d like to spend some time relaxing at home, watching my favourite shows.”




January 25, 2016

Meet Statistics summer scholar Eva Brammen

photo_brammenEvery summer, the Department of Statistics offers scholarships to a number of students so they can work with staff on real-world projects. Eva, right, is working on a sociolinguistic study with Dr Steffen Klaere. Eva, right,  explains:

“How often do you recognise the dialect of a neighbour and start classifying them into a certain category? Sociolinguistics studies patterns and structures in spoken language to identify some of the traits that enable us to do this kind of classification.

“Linguists have known for a long time that this involves recognising relevant signals in speech, and using those signals to differentiate some speakers and group others. Specific theories of language predict that some signals will cluster together, but there are remarkably few studies that seriously explore the patterns that might emerge across a number of signals.

“The study I am working on was carried out on Bequia Island in the Eastern Caribbean. The residents of three villages, Mount Pleasant, Paget Farm and Hamilton, say that they can identify which village people come from by their spoken language. The aim of this study was to detect signals in speech that tied the speaker to a location.

“One major result from this project was that the data are sometimes insufficient to answer the researchers’ questions satisfactorily. So we are tapping into the theory of experimental design to develop sampling protocols for sociolinguistic studies that permit researchers to answer their questions satisfactorily.

“I am 22 and come from Xanten in Germany. I studied Biomathematics at the Ernst-Moritz-Arndt-University in Greifswald, and have just finished my bachelor degree.

“What I like most about statistics is its connection with mathematical theory and its application to many different areas. You can work with people who aren’t necessarily statisticians.

“This is my first time in New Zealand, so with my time off I am looking forward to travelling around the country. During my holidays I will explore Northland and the Bay of Islands. After I have finished my project, I want to travel from Auckland to the far south and back again.”

January 21, 2016

Meet Statistics summer scholar David Chan

David ChanEvery summer, the Department of Statistics offers scholarships to a number of students so they can work with staff on real-world projects. David, right, is working on the New Zealand General Social Survey 2014 with Professor Thomas Lumley and Associate Professor Brian McArdle of Statistics, and  Senior Research Fellow Roy Lay-Yee and Professor Peter Davis from COMPASS, the Centre of Methods and Policy Application in the Social Sciences. David explains:

“My project involves exploring the social network data collected by the New Zealand General Social Survey 2014, which measures well-being and is the country’s biggest social survey outside the five-yearly census. I am essentially profiling each respondent’s social network, and then I’ll investigate the relationships between a person’s social network and their well-being.

“Measurements of well-being include socio-economic status, emotional and physical health, and overall life satisfaction. I intend to explore whether there is a link between social networks and well-being. I’ll then identify what kinds of people make a social network successful and how they influence a respondent’s well-being.

“I have just completed a conjoint Bachelor of Music and Bachelor of Science, majoring in composition and statistics respectively.  When I started my conjoint, I wasn’t too sure why statistics appealed to me. But I know now – statistics appeals to me because of its analytical nature to solving both theoretical and real-life problems.

“This summer, I’m planning to hang out with my friends and family. I’m planning to work on a small music project as well.”