This is a guest post from Dr Paula McLeod who has one of the most interesting jobs (and challenges!) I've heard of for a long time. In September of 2012 Paula was appointed as statistician for St. Helena on a two-year fixed term contract. Very few of you may have heard of St. Helena. It is a small volcanic Island in the South Atlantic Ocean, a British territory with only 4500 residents. It is such a remote island that it was used to imprison Napoleon Bonaparte in 1815 and it takes five days to sail by RMS St Helena to Cape Town for access to travel hubs. The development of an airport scheduled for completion in 2015/2016 is expected to transform the island's fortunes.

This week Paula will be hosting a local event as part of this week's worldwide Big Data Week so I invited Paula to share with readers the unique challenges she is facing in her role such as "transforming the quality and range of available statistics, support users in accessing and interpreting data". Paula is very keen to invite any readers to share with here any suggestions of resources or support that you think may be of help in the ongoing development of the island's capability.


St Helena is a small island heading for big change. One of the most isolated islands in the world St Helena has been used as a stopover for passing ships on the pre-Suez canal route from Europe to Asia and South Africa and as a place of exile.

St-Helena-Jamestown-from-above

The isolation is true both physically and in terms of communications- our internet connection speeds range from 128Kbps – 2 Mbps depending on the depth of your pocket. Although improving the speed of our broadband services is dependant on securing funding to re-route a planned trans-Atlantic fibre connection the days of physical isolation are numbered. St Helena is facing up to irrevocable change with the impending arrival of air access- construction is well underway for an airport scheduled for operational completion in February 2016.

As we head into this change St Helena has a higher than ever demand for reliable data on the people, the economy and the environment. The statistics need to be bang up-to-date (where possible) and accessible to all (always!). To build trust, provide accountability and enable the community at large to engage and support the change process everyone must have access to the same information. This means many changes in the way we collect data, process information, and then report and disseminate. We need to modify approaches to provide immediate information, accessible to all and presented in a way they can understand regardless of level of education. I don’t believe that these are radical ideas but making an idea a reality is not always easy, especially when involves many technical and skilled processes.

Before coming to the island I had only ever worked in the UK in academia and the civil service. I took for granted the many experts which surrounded me. If that advice and support wasn’t found in my office or through professional contacts then it was often a Google search away. Training courses and workshops are readily available. Where needed consultants and contractors can be bought in to fill vital roles in a project for a day, a week or as and when required.

On St Helena to send a team member on a one-day training course is going to require upwards of a month away from the office to allow for travel time. On-line seminars and e-learning is a growing area which we would love to engage with… but these, unsurprisingly are not tailored to our internet capacity. It’s not unreasonable to make use of You-Tube, until you are in a place where your download allowance is 500Mb a month. It is exciting to see seminars being made available on-line. Finding them is not always straightforward. Again, unsurprisingly, browsing is not a quick process when most websites are not designed for limited bandwidth.

The thirst for knowledge and advancement found here is admirable. When presented with information well there is genuine delight. An hour-long session showing Hans Rosling's documentary “The Joy of Stats” has the most amazing impact. You may be able to watch this online any time you like, or order the DVD for next day delivery. For St Helena it took 8-weeks to arrive by post.

We want to engage and inspire people but that is almost the easy part. Keeping up interest is more difficult. It is slightly grieving that having initiated excitement about data we are unable to back it up with convincing example of where this can be put to good use. Data collection and collaboration on St Helena is in its infancy. Migration towards electronic databases is in progress but currently exists as disparate, isolated solutions. The need for change towards conformity and collaboration is recognized but difficult to achieve. This reticence to engage with new techniques and technologies is repeated the world over and it is fantastic to be able to join with international initiatives, such as Big Data and Statistics 2013, in order to make progress.

It is hardly surprising that data is difficult to get hold of and poorly used when is difficult to show the benefits. Why should anyone be expected to be burdened with sharing sensitive information about themselves or their business if there is no apparent benefit? (other than the pleadings of a dedicated enumerator!).

Some prime data issues on St Helena are:

Fear of information: there is a strong suspicion that information will be used against people. Disclosure risk is difficult to manage in a small population. The island population currently stands at a little under 4,300. To be unique is the one common characteristic! That said, many people are open to the concept but need to be convinced of the benefits that come from sharing information on income, wages and so on. Businesses and those responsible for production need an even greater level of persuasion that collaboration on use of data will benefit their business as well as (not just?) that of their neighbour.

Limited use of business data: from monitoring stock level to market strategy there is a keen need for better use of data. This isn’t a support service businesses can buy in- the skills simply aren’t available on island. The solution is training and support but people need convincing that the expense and effort are worth it. We don’t have local examples so look to provide inspiration from overseas… just need to pin-point the right stories!

Lack of understanding: we just can’t “see” the benefits of using data well. The UK media is a wealth of information and the way this is presented is constantly improving. If further information is required it is a few clicks or a trip to the library away. These are straightforward activities which just aren’t as easy here. Our local library is not blessed with many core references on use and understanding of data or statistics. On an island where the median income is less than £6,500 all purchases must be very carefully considered and clearly justified.

The island needs to be shown the benefits that come from making personal and business data available for use by those equipped with the expertise to manipulate, analyze and present information. Equally important to the ability to correctly interpret the information with which they are presented- to know whether this information is correct, fundamentally flawed or being cherry-picked to support a particular business need or political stance.

This isn’t a sorry story from an isolated British territory, heavily dependent on UK aid. This is a story of a small island growing in population, economy and potential. We need to develop in the use and understanding of data to ensure we are to be equipped to deal with our entry into the international arena. This is a journey that many other have started on, perhaps just a little bit ahead of us and with a greater ability to accommodate change. Capacity within the St Helena Statistics Office is limited and are needs are many legged (see below). If you have any suggestions of resources or support that you think may be of help in this development then we will be very grateful to hear from you, you can email me via statistician@sainthelena.gov.sh.

Data needs of St Helena

You can follow Paula's personal experience of this genuine life experience on her blog 'Small Island Stats'.