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Jessica Utts: An ambassador for statistics

As ASA president, Utts looks forward to forging new relationships with statisticians and promoting the field worldwide.

The Korail slum in Dhaka, Bangladesh houses an estimated 200,000 people, many in precariously built corrugated tin huts. Its residents are largely served by BRAC, the largest non-governmental organization (NGO) in the world, who builds schools, clinics and supports women in business through microfinance, which provides women with small loans to open shops or buy a television that the community pays to watch, in turn economically empowering their selves and families.

In an underdeveloped, poverty-stricken area that relies on nonprofit and NGO aid, it is difficult for organizations to adequately address the needs of residents and distribute resources effectively. However, according to UCI Statistics Chair Jessica Utts, who also serves as president of the American Statistical Association (ASA), the field of statistics can play a pivotal role in this area.

“How can you predict poverty and wealth in a country? It’s very hard to get concrete data on that sort of thing,” explains Utts. “In a recent article in Science, somebody came up with the idea of looking at mobile phone data. From that, you can correlate that with poverty and wealth because it is easier to get mobile phone records. … There are also cases where statisticians may have good data on places on hospitals, survival rates and infant mortality rates,” Utts continues. “Organizations like BRAC can then evaluate if certain efforts are paying off.”

But such data is relatively superficial, and statisticians can provide even more critical information and analysis about the perils of underdeveloped regions. “The really intricate stuff that requires higher-level understanding is where we’re trying to use available data to make inferences about stuff that isn’t easily measurable or available,” Utts says.

Utts was able to witness BRAC at work on a recent trip to Dhaka, where she attended the Dhaka University International Conference on Statistics, delivering one of the keynotes as part of her ASA duties. She also gave the keynote at a conference held by the International Indian Statistical Association just a few days prior. In her keynotes, Utts focused on the many ways statistics plays out in our daily lives—from deciding on purchasing an extended warranty to tracking our fitness with Fitbits. It’s part of the ASA’s effort to increase the public’s statistical education and literacy, done through ASA programs like “This Is Statistics,” which encourages high school students to explore the diverse careers available in the field, and, a resource to fact-check statistics in the news and for members of the media to increase their savvy.

Both conferences had a stated goal—statistics for population development—though Utts noted that the gatherings also allowed statisticians to bond over problems in the field that cross international boundaries. “The day I visited the Korail slum, they gathered around 20 statisticians and we were able to have a roundtable discussion,” she notes. “What really struck me was how similar the issues in Bangladesh are to the issues we’re facing here, such as: Statistics is such a fast-changing field with big data and ubiquitous computer use; we are trying to figure out how to educate our students for the modern world. We’re also trying to figure out how to get more students interested in statistics and how best to mentor the students we have.”

As part of her ASA duties, Utts will travel the world to continue a similar dialogue with other statisticians. She’s also crafted four initiatives that fit within the ASA’s strategic plans to:

  1. Get more information about statistics careers into high school classrooms—especially Advanced Placement classrooms;
  2. Provide media training to all ASA members who desire it;
  3. Create a group of “statistical ambassadors,” who are intensively media-trained and who will be proactive in reaching out to the media to correct when the field is misrepresented in the news; and
  4. Set priorities for research and statistics education, including NSF-funded workshops.

As she begins her three-year tenure as ASA President, Utts admits that she is most excited to travel and forge new relationships with statisticians the world over. “I’m really looking forward to meeting people and getting a broader understanding of our strengths and opportunities as statisticians,” she says.

— Story by Courtney Hamilton
— Photos courtesy of Jessica Utts

View a slideshow of images from Utts’ trip: