Young statisticians gather in SA

The ISIbalo programme, an initiative of
Statistics South Africa, is aimed at
encouraging more young South Africans
to consider statistics as a career.
(Image: Statistics South Africa)

Janine Erasmus

South Africa’s official statistics body Statistics South Africa (Stats SA) will host the first conference for the continent’s young statisticians in Pretoria in July 2008.

The Young African Statisticians Conference will prepare attendees for the 57th session of the International Statistical Institute (ISI) in Durban in 2009. This is the first time in the 122-year history of the ISI that a session is taking place in sub-Saharan Africa.

Minister of Finance Trevor Manuel will deliver the opening address, while keynote speeches from Prof. Denise Lievesley, the president of the ISI executive, Prof. Ben Kiregyera of the UN Economic Commission for Africa, and Prof. Richard Mkandawire of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development can be expected.

The conference falls under the umbrella of the ISIbalo (Nguni, meaning mathematical sum) programme, a capacity-building initiative of Stats SA designed to draw in a new generation of statisticians and encourage more interest in maths and science at school level.

Africa does not have a consistent history of achievement in the science of statistics and ISIbalo seeks to redress this situation. The programme has been developed as an integral part of the upcoming ISI session, the primary focus of which is to develop human statistical capacity in South Africa, the Southern African Development Community and Africa as a whole, beyond 2009, with a special focus on young statisticians and women.

“The fact that the global statistics community will convene their conference in South Africa is recognition of the work Stats SA has done, especially on the African continent,” says Howard Gabriels, chair of the Statistics Council.

Striving for excellence

In 2004, at the jubilee of the South African Statistical Association, Minister of Finance Trevor Manuel named various challenges facing South Africa in its efforts to achieve statistical excellence. Two of the most crucial issues are, firstly, that the statistics body must inspire greater faith in official statistics among South Africans, especially after the inaccuracies of the apartheid regime and a number of errors made by Stats SA in more recent years.

The second issue is recognising the importance of building capacity in statistics to sustain the country’s growth and competency in this field on an international level.

The current lack of statistical skills among South Africans is a legacy of the apartheid era, during which education for black learners was inadequate and maths and science were not taught in black schools. This has resulted in the loss of an entire generation of potential statisticians and scientists.

“There are too few South Africans who love statistics or have a passion for it,” says Pali Lehohla, South Africa’s Statistician-General and patron of the young statisticians conference.

However, says Lehohla, the road map to beating these challenges is becoming clearer. “Central to this road map is the role of Africa’s young statisticians whose intellect and ability are key to overcoming many of the technological and measurement issues in Africa.

“A focus on Africa’s youth in the statistical community is a first step towards building Africa’s foundation for managing better data for better results in the face of these challenges. The first Africa Young Statisticians Conference will therefore bring together young African statisticians from across the continent to deliberate on the pertinent issues of statistical development.”

The conference will give Africa’s young statisticians a taste of what they can expect at the 57th session of the ISI. Previously, according to Stats SA, African participation in ISI sessions has been minimal but this is to be addressed through exercises in research and development, training in survey methodology and census analysis, workshops in scientific writing skills and preparation of research papers for presentation. In this way Africa’s statisticians will be better equipped to play a significant role in the international statistical fraternity.

Supplying quality data

Statistics South Africa is the country’s national statistics board and was established after the Statistics Act of 1999 was passed by Parliament. The function of Stats SA is to further democracy and economic growth through the delivery of accurate and accessible statistical information across a range of key indicators such as the Consumer Price Index, Gross Domestic Product, unemployment, population, manufacturing, tourism, and retail, trade and vehicle sales.

Stats SA undertakes official censuses and surveys for demographic, economic, environmental and social purposes and has produced two national censuses to date, in 1996 and 2001. In keeping with its vision to be the preferred supplier of quality statistics, the body has adopted a number of operating principles relating to impartiality, professional standards, accountability and transparency, legislation, cost effectiveness and confidentiality. It also cooperates with statistical producers both inside South Africa and abroad, and adheres to international standards to promote consistency.

Stats SA is assisted by a Statistics Council, which comprises 25 members appointed by the minister of finance. Members serve for a maximum of three years and collectively advise on major data-gathering activities. They also comment on the quality of censuses and make recommendations regarding Stats SA’s annual work plan, which documents the broad strategic approach and key priorities to be adhered to over the medium term.

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