1301.6.55.001 - Tasmanian Statistical News, Sep 2009  
Previous ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 08/09/2009   
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General statistical inquiries
Statistical training
Statistical literacy: data awareness


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Our training programs are conducted by ABS staff with expertise in designing questionnaires, analysing data and managing the survey process. The courses teach practical skills by involving participants in individual and group exercises. In addition, courses can be tailored to meet the specific needs of your organisation. We also hold regular seminars which may focus on statistical developments, publications, trends or issues.


In today's information-rich society, we encounter statistical information on a daily basis, ranging from unemployment rates, retail figures and cancer rates, to football ladders and cricket scores. Statistics tell interesting stories and enable us to make sense of the world. Statistics are essential for research, planning and decision-making purposes.

There are several concepts that recur throughout the literature on statistical literacy. These fall into four key areas and can be considered in a practical manner as ‘criteria’ on which to base statistical literacy:
  • Data awareness
  • The ability to understand statistical concepts
  • The ability to analyse, interpret and evaluate statistical information
  • The ability to communicate statistical information and understandings

In this issue, we will focus on aspects of data awareness.

An important aspect of statistical literacy is understanding what makes data trustworthy and reliable. Informed judgements can be made about the quality of the data and whether they are fit for purpose if users have a sound understanding of what the data show, how the data should be interpreted, any limitations of the data, and what pitfalls may arise when interpreting the data. Consider:
  • Are the data from a reliable/credible source?
  • What was the intended purpose of the collection results?
  • Is the information representative of the total population?
  • How high are the relative standard errors? Can the data be considered reliable if the relative standard error is high?
  • How recent are the data? Is this the latest information available?
  • Are you looking for a snapshot of a point in time or a trend over time?
  • Are other data sources available for comparisons? Are the datasets comparable?
  • What metadata (quality statements, explanatory notes, etc.) sits around the data? Most ABS products have an Explanatory Notes tab containing useful information on scope, concepts and definitions, survey design and estimation.

Data can come from a variety of sources. Be aware that some data may not necessarily be fit for your purpose:
  • Pre-existing data may have been produced for a specific purpose. The population that the data are based on may differ from the population now under scrutiny, or the sampling method may not necessarily be appropriate for the current study.
  • Secondary data may have been used in a selective way to suit the purpose of a particular study or report. As a general rule, consult the original or primary data source wherever possible.
  • Data generated from observation and/or experimentation can be influenced by the type of questions asked and the manner in which they are asked. A sample should be representative of the population. If there are limitations with the sampling procedure, it is important that these are acknowledged as this can influence the validity and reliability of results.
  • Anecdotal evidence often relates to a specific event and is generally not representative. While it may be useful when describing a particular case study, care should be taken when making conclusions about the broader population.
  • Biased data can result from the deliberate or inadvertent introduction of bias into survey samples. Sources of bias include:

      • sample bias (was the size of the sample appropriate, how were the respondents selected?);
      • response errors (people may misinterpret the questions and give inaccurate answers);
      • missing data (people may not respond at all or give incomplete information);
      • responses may be influenced by the wording of the questions;
      • responses may be influenced by the interviewer;
      • groups with a vested interest may generate data that are biased towards their organisation's position, while data found to contradict that position may not necessarily be forthcoming.

In upcoming issues of Tasmanian Statistical News we will discuss other statistical literacy concepts in more detail. Meanwhile, if you would like to know more about statistical literacy and its relevance to you, check out the article: What is statistical literacy and why is it important to be statistically literate? as featured in Tasmanian State and Regional Indicators (cat. no. 1307.6).