Skip to content
Society, Politics & Law

Social statistics in context

Updated Thursday 8th August 2013

What numbers can help us to understand and what they can’t.

Global map in sea of numbers Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Michael Brown | Dreamstime.com Take the following data:

  • The proportion of households falling below society's minimum standards has doubled since 1983
  • 5 million more people live in inadequate housing than in the 1990s
  • 11% of households can't heat their homes adequately today up from 5% in 1983 and 3% in 1999

These statistics, taken from the Poverty and Social Exclusion Study, UK provide a picture of social life in the UK that seems immediately understandable. How is this understanding conveyed?

First, each of the statements includes some reference to a change in social conditions in relation to an earlier time period. This provides an immediate context against which to understand the meaning behind the figures that are presented.

Second, we are provided with clear indicators of poverty, in this case: inadequate housing, the ability for people to heat their homes and minimum standards of living. See the Poverty and Social Exclusion site for more detail.

In examples such as this, statistics can provide a useful guide for understanding the quality of social conditions in which people live, and they begin to tell us a story or paint a broad picture of social life. However, sometimes statistics can be difficult to understand.

  • How can we understand what a statistical figure is really saying?
  • Are there statistics we can trust and ones we can’t, and how do we tell the difference?
  • Are there limitations to the knowledge that we can gain from statistics?

Moreover, you also need to consider whether there are any limitations of the data you are looking at. This might include: whether the number of cases that the data draws upon are sufficient to generalise; if it is survey data, you should consider the way questions were asked; and if you’re looking to compare data over time, you need to make sure that the data sources remain reliable and stable.

For example, when looking at a dataset that has been collected in different time periods or over a lengthy space of time, there can be difficulties of defining measures and making comparisons. The way a particular measure is calculated may change or alternatively there may be changes to the living conditions in a local area that are not reflected in the statistics.

When levels of household income are measured, for instance, there are two ways in which the number of households counted beneath a threshold can change. Firstly, the threshold may stay the same, but households may become poorer.

Secondly, a household may remain the same, but the threshold criteria may increase. Thus, when working with an existing data set it is important to check that the threshold criteria remains the same across time periods for the particular indicator you are interested in.  

The data and how to use Postcode Patterns

We've launched Postcode Patterns, a way to discover and compare data from different neighbourhoods covering income, education, older people, community and health.

Using the Borough of Milton Keynes (the home of The Open University headquarters) as a case study, we present and examine some local social statistics in order to begin to answer some of these questions and to give you more confidence in reading and interpreting statistics. Postcode Patterns will also provide you with some basic skills and tips for accessing data.

This site presents some local social statistics for Milton Keynes, drawn from MKi Observatory. This is a web-based data resource which anyone can access in order to share, map and visualise data.

In Milton Keynes, the local council use this data to better understand some of the social issues that affect residents. The data is also used by other organisations who are interested in learning more about the way social issues affect different communities in different ways and the way these change over time.

Milton Keynes Council uses the data to produce a ‘social atlas’, which helps them to gain understanding of:

  • the most significant social inclusion issues
  • geographic concentrations of need
  • the relative severity of social exclusion compared with other areas and the national picture
  • geographic areas and issues where development of services and initiatives might be focused
  • where changes are occurring

The data we have drawn on to build this website aims to measure levels of deprivation. Certain indicators (e.g. housing benefit, education levels, adult education, and incidents of crime) tend to be utilised by various policy makers and councils as measurable indicators of deprivation.

While the statistics provide one way of drawing a picture of a particular area, town or city, there are other ways of understanding, measuring and studying social conditions.

Working through Postcode Patterns, we will consider ‘statistical pictures’ of areas of Milton Keynes, but we will also consider some qualitative or descriptive pictures of areas of Milton Keynes, which often contrast with what the statistical information suggests.

The data on this site are drawn from a range of local sources, including the Census. For the complete data sets on which the data visualisations on this site have been based, use the 'Get the Data' button.

Alternatively, if you’re not from Milton Keynes, you might want to look at data that is relevant to your local area—ask your local council where you can find social data sources that are relevant to your area. Most councils will maintain similar data sets and can be accessed for free.

Additionally, you can also access the 2011 Census on the Office for National Statistics Website and our OpenLearn piece on getting to grips with Census data.

We hope you find Postcode Patterns an interesting and enjoyable way to explore statistics.

 

For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?

Other content you may like

Postcode patterns Creative commons image Icon The Open University under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0 license activity icon

Society, Politics & Law 

Postcode patterns

Learn to read and interpret social statistics by exploring Milton Keynes, home of The Open University.

Activity
Are movies really getting longer? Creative commons image Icon rpb1001 under Creative Commons BY-NC 4.0 license article icon

History & The Arts 

Are movies really getting longer?

You might think movies are getting longer and longer - but the data tells a more interesting story. Evan Stewart orders a large popcorn.

Article
Milton Keynes and the roots of 'Smart' transport Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: MK:Smart video icon

Society, Politics & Law 

Milton Keynes and the roots of 'Smart' transport

Learn about MK’s unique history of transport innovation, and how The Open University has been a part of the experiment.  

Video
10 mins
Methods in Motion: Introducing Methods in Motion Creative commons image Icon Another Believer under Creative Commons BY-SA 4.0 license article icon

Society, Politics & Law 

Methods in Motion: Introducing Methods in Motion

The world is always changing around us. If we want to understand how, we need to think about how we understand. Elizabeth Silva explains why methods do not only describe the world, they build it.

Article
Getting started with SPSS Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission free course icon Level 1 icon

Society, Politics & Law 

Getting started with SPSS

Handling statistical data is an essential part of psychological research. However, many people find the idea of using statistics, and especially statistical software packages, extremely daunting. This free course, Getting started with SPSS, takes a step-by-step approach to statistics software through seven interactive activities. No statistics software is needed.

Free course
3 hrs
More confusing terms in statistics Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Sunnycatty | Dreamstime.com article icon

Science, Maths & Technology 

More confusing terms in statistics

Kevin McConway explains why statisticians use everyday words for not-so-everyday concepts - and how to translate what they really mean.

Article
More or Less: interview with Tim Harford Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC audio icon

Science, Maths & Technology 

More or Less: interview with Tim Harford

Tim Harford, from More or Less, talks with Kevin McConway on why statistics matter and how they can impact the future.

Audio
20 mins
Do people need Peeple? Copyright free image Icon Copyright free: Couples by Olessya article icon

Science, Maths & Technology 

Do people need Peeple?

Assuming it's not all some marketing prank, the Peeple app looks set to create a new way for people to be mean to each other. Ansgar Koene says you better prepare yourself.

Article
OpenLearn Live: 10th July 2015 Creative commons image Icon Skyguy141 under CC-BY-SA licence under Creative-Commons license article icon

TV, Radio & Events 

OpenLearn Live: 10th July 2015

Something to think about, as we dip into free learning, new thinking and interesting research from around OpenLearn and beyond.

Article