3000 Statisticians in Hong Kong - Statistics Improving the World Around Us

The International Statistical Institute (ISI) is a worldwide network of statisticians in all statistical disciplines.  It holds its conference, these days called the World Statistical Congress, every two years, in locations as diverse as the citizenry of its members.  These meetings have been held regularly since 1853, although the ISI itself was only formed in 1885.  Today they attract thousands of statisticians from around the globe.

I was fortunate enough to attend the most recent Congress in Hong Kong, both as an individual and as the President of the Statistical Society of Australia.  It was my third such Congress, having attended the 2005 meeting in Sydney and the 2007 meeting in Lisbon.

One of the consequences of the diversity of membership is the remarkable contrast of workshop and session themes offered during the event.  For example:

  • A workshop I attended before the Congress itself focused on ethical issues facing statisticians.  These ranged from effectiveness in statistical methodology, to resisting pressure to bias statistical outputs, through to the ownership of data.
  • On the opening day of the Congress, I was faced with choosing between parallel sessions on the statistics of climate change – one concerned with modelling future climates and the other with problems of reconstructing records of historical climates
  • Another session on the same day concerned statisticians in Greece and Argentina being persecuted by their governments for honestly reporting the economic situation in those countries.  The ISI was sending open letters to the governments as well as negotiating behind the scenes to protect these individuals.
  • Special sessions discussed “big data” and modern machine learning methods.  These were interesting in that they bring computer scientists together with statisticians.
  • At any time during the five days of the Congress there was at least one session on statistical education, with discussion on what is required to ensure a future generation of statisticians that is well-trained, skilled and capable as well as wider education issues.

This multitude of session choices directly reflects the structure of the ISI, which contains seven constituent societies ranging from industrial statistics, through survey methods and theoretical statistics to environmental statistics.  In a sense, each of these societies was having a conference at the same time.  For me, it was an opportunity, within just one week, to catch up with and further my understanding of what was happening in many of these different arenas. 

However a Congress is really about people.  In my role as President of the Statistical Society of Australia I spent hours discussing issues facing statistics in Australia and around the world.  There were also many Australian delegates to the Congress and, as is often the case with busy people, being away from our normal hectic work schedules provided a rare opportunity for us to catch up!

The close of the Congress was a gala dinner in the spectacular Hong Kong Convention Centre, looking out over the water to the lights of Kowloon.  As well as distinctly Chinese entertainment (including martial arts and opera) there was a presentation about the next Congress to be held in 2015 in Rio de Janeiro.

Looking back I could not help comparing this Congress with other mathematical conferences I have experienced and in particular with the International Congress of Mathematicians (ICM) that I attended in 2002 in Beijing and 2010 in Hyderabad.  The ICM has a history as long as the ISI and, meeting every four years, has similar international prestige, often being opened by heads of state.  While just as exciting as the ISI, there is also a strong contrast.  The ICMs take a more theoretical approach to their subject matter, while the ISI meetings have a strong focus on the practicality of statistics and the ways in which statistics can aid society and improve the world around us.  That extra dimension, which I value highly, helped make the 2013 Congress a most worthwhile event.

Dr John Henstridge
December 2013