We are celebrating World Statistics Day with in-depth conversation with president of the South African Statistical Association (SASA).

We are celebrating World Statistics Day with in-depth conversation with president of the South African Statistical Association (SASA).

Warren Brettenny, PhD, is the Head of the Department of Statistics at Nelson Mandela University in South Africa and is the current president of the South African Statistical Association (SASA). He is passionate about forging a path for data science in South Africa and growing data literacy in the region. His research focuses on machine learning techniques in the renewable energy sector, as well as stochastic efficiency analysis applications.

1. Firstly, I would love to thank you, Dr Brettenny, for taking time from your busy schedule to sit down with us for this interview, especially since the world is celebrating World Statistics Day. To kick off the discussion, I would love to ask, if you were not a statistician, what would you have loved to be?

Thank you! I am very happy to spend this time with you. Ok… well to be honest as a kid I really wanted to be a professional sportsperson. A cricketer to be precise – but alas, as I grew up my skills did not match my ambition, so I guess I had to settle for stats. 😊 Joking aside, as an adult I thought that if I could do something else it would be to work as a music producer or sound engineer, I have a passion for music. But, when all is said and done, I have always been happy with my chosen path. I was in Grade 10 in my computer science class when my teacher – I have forgotten her name now – spoke about studying statistics after school, and that was when I made up my mind. I must admit that it made my subject choices easy when I reached university and I have stayed here (at Mandela University) ever since I started.

2. I read a blog in which you expressed frustration on how different entities and individuals lack understanding of what statistics is and, more importantly, where it fits within our economy. You identified this as an identity crisis. What have you identified as the source of this identity crisis?

I think it is difficult to pinpoint the source of the “crisis”. It stems from a growing reliance on data and a growing awareness of how powerful data is. Companies and governments are constantly collecting data, and with advanced technologies more and more data is being collected on a daily basis. This data has the potential to bring knowledge and, naturally, with this knowledge comes power. But knowledge and insight can only be extracted from data by those who are equipped to work with it – that is where the statistician comes in. These days it is commonplace to refer to these people as data scientists, but more often than not, they are simply statisticians with a “fancy” name.

Therein lies the identity crisis at the heart of the modern statistician. We are, for all intents and proposes, the OG data scientists but many university programmes and companies don’t recognise us as such. As I mentioned in my article, I’ve heard that a data scientist is a “person who is better at statistics than a programmer and better at programming than a statistician”, my counter to this is that any statistician who wishes to apply his skills on data needs to be a highly proficient programmer. So, there is very little to distinguish between a data scientist and a statistician – at least in my opinion.

With all that said, I think that more and more statistics as a discipline is being recognised as vital to growth and development both in the industrial, governmental and educational sectors. As leaders of the discipline, we need to ensure that our skills (under the umbrella of data science or statistics) can meet the needs in these sectors particularly with the proliferation of data in these spaces.

3. Data has been viewed as modern-day oil. Global companies have shifted their strategies to be more data-driven. This has influenced their growth and enabled them to out-performing their competitors. How can the South African economy and society benefit from being data-driven?

As I mentioned, from data comes knowledge; from knowledge comes power. Take, for example, the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal of 2016. While ethically reprehensible, this company was able to use the knowledge gained from data ostensibly to influence the outcome of a presidential election. The power of data is incredible and companies, being well aware of this, have put into place mechanisms to make the most out of this data to enhance their service, product or brand. Such data-driven advances have proved fruitful in improving productivity and service delivery many private companies and governments globally. South Africa has a significant amount of catching up to do in this space, and I believe that these approaches are key to turning our fortunes around – particularly on the service provision front. While it is great to push the envelope on what is possible with data, we always need to be cognisant of where and how the data was collected. Ethical data collection and usage is something that we must ensure is forefront in the thinking of all companies and government organisations when they undertake to pursue data-driven initiatives.

4. South Africa is facing a significant decline in young people taking on the career of Statisticians. What would you say is the cause of this, and how can the government or other stakeholders play a part in improving this?

Statistics has the reputation of being a difficult subject and while this is true, it is for lack of ability that we see the decline; it is for lack of interest. The exposure many first time university students have to statistics is what they have been taught at school. This, often times, does not paint statistics as an exciting (or even a possible career) choice. Government and stakeholders in this space (and I am including SASA here) need to do more to facilitate the learning of statistics at lower school levels. This will come in the form of targeted teacher training and a better understanding of the benefits of a career in statistics and data science. Most importantly though, students must do mathematics at school this opens more doors than any other subject.

5. I couldn't help but notice that you are a fan of communities or societies with adequate data literacy. Why do you think that is important, and how do we assist communities to be data literate?

I am very passionate about a country and community that is data literate. I mentioned in a previous interview that I believe that data literacy is becoming as important as language and numerical literacies. This is because we are faced with data – and interpretations of it – on a daily basis. Through advertisements, phone apps, news reports and social media we are presented with a facts, results, warnings and theories. In years gone by these were usually ratifies and checked for accuracy before they were broadcast to millions of people. Now, anyone with an internet connection can read an article or look at some data and broadcast their opinions to all. Without proper data literacy and knowledge there is a risk of taking incorrectly reported and presented facts as true and therein starts the snowball effect of misinformation. If more people had higher levels of data literacy, they would be more critical of the information that is presented to them and will be able to call out potential misinformation and disinformation where they see it.

As I mentioned in the response to the previous question, we need to capacitate teachers to train scholars how to read and interpret data properly. With the abundance of it and the increasing role it is playing in our day-to-day lives it is essential that we are competent to understand it – lest misinformation runs rampant.

6. As you know, today (October 20 2022), we are celebrating World Statistics Day. The theme for this year is Data for Sustainable Development. What does this theme mean for you and your South African Statistical Association team?

Data for sustainable development is key to many of my research endeavours. Myself and my colleague, Dr Chantelle Clohessy, are using statistics and machine learning applications in the field of solar power which will promote the growth in this area. My other research areas (along with my students) is to focus on the use of data and statistics to assess and gain an understanding of the inefficiencies present in water delivery, electricity delivery and education in South Africa. These studies emphasise how data-driven approaches to key problems in our society can lead to a better and more sustainable future for our country. Our government stakeholders need simply to tap into to the data-driven approach to see its benefits. SASA plays a major role in the development of critical research skills – specifically in our young and emerging statisticians and data experts. We host online events and specialised streams at our conference for them to develop their skills an make a meaningful contribution to our discipline going forward. We ensure the sustainability of our association, discipline and of our contribution society in this way.

7. The world of data can be dark at times, especially regarding privacy violations, manipulation of data, inaccurate data, and security and storage of data. With the increase of data available in the world, how do you protect and ensure the integrity of the people responsible for handling this data?

I think of data as both a cure and a curse. This question speaks directly to that. Data, when analysed, processed and presented correctly provides the cure to the unknown. It provides insight and information into how the world works and allows us to make informed and accurate decisions. But it is also a curse. When data is deliberately manipulated, misrepresented or poorly analysed it can be the source of confusion, panic and conspiracy theories. We need to put strict measures in place to ensure that such outcomes are limited.

The POPI act has shown that South Africa takes our data privacy very seriously and this is the first step to eliminating breaches in data security. Institutions which undertake research need to ensure that thorough ethical considerations are made for all ongoing studies – this is already happening at a university level. Additionally, we need to ensure that not only are all our data collection practices ethical, but our analyses need to be as well. We need to ensure that our own personal beliefs or biases do not influence our work and analysis as we allow the data to speak for itself.

8. Being a president of an association comes with plenty of responsibilities and hard work. How would you describe your term thus far as the president of SASA?

It has been a bit of a whirlwind few years. I came into the executive committee just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the world. As you can imagine this forced us to re-evaluate what we do and how we do it. It was not easy, but we have focused on making SASA more accessible and relevant with a refreshed image and new ventures. I must commend my management committee in particular for their dedication to the cause and the work they have done to support me, I truly can not thank them enough.


9. The mission of SASA ‘shall be to foster the study and knowledge of statistical theory and its application towards improving the quality of life of all South Africans’ What are the 3 most important things SASA is doing to achieve this mission?

SASA has been a big player in the advancement of statistics in academia for many years. We have a journal which attracts submissions from all around the world and an annual conference which celebrates our researchers and the work done within our community. You will know that the application of statistical methods on real world data can work to improve the quality of live within our communities and we strive to help facilitate this. With the data and the skills we heave, we can help to make informed and data-driven decisions to be better our community. There is research that is done all around the country which is focused on addressing important issues within our community and as SASA we are committed to help bring light to these advancements through our publications, seminars and conferences. In addition to that, we provide and facilitate bursaries and scholarships to both academically and financially deserving students at 3rd year and honours level on an annual basis. This helps to provide opportunities to students you might not otherwise been able to continue on their journey into statistics.

10. The SASA 63rd annual conference is in November 2022. What is the theme of the conference and what is the main outcome you would like?

We are very excited to host our conference in November. It is being held in George, which marks the first time that our conference has been held in the region. Also, it is our return to a regular conference experience post-COVID. I must extend my gratitude to my colleagues at Stellenbosch University who undertook to host a conference under difficult circumstances last year, and I am glad that regular service has resumed now that the worst of the pandemic is behind us.