Stimulating statistics

James Foreman-Peck on keeping track of Wales’s position in the world:

Statistics can be exciting. A recent radio programme pointed out that one twentieth of Llanelli’s population was now Polish. And the only Wales-based UK Government department – the Office for National Statistics – was immersed in controversy recently over no less interesting proportions. However, media reports of ministerial anger over the release and supposed misrepresentation of immigration statistics may not have been the excitement that the ONS wanted.

Not yet the same object of condemnation, a no less august institution has been deploying statistics arguably to the detriment of Wales’ world image. The Economist magazine, founded in 1843, and opinion-former of the business elite on both sides of the Atlantic, produces an annual compendium entitled ‘Pocket World in Figures’. Here can be found lists of the richest countries in the world, that Iceland is where human development peaks (and that in Sierra Leone human development achieves its nadir), that Afghanistan has the fifth fastest population growth in the world and the West Bank and Gaza the twelfth fastest.

Lithuania is revealed to top mobile phone ownership, with 138 subscribers per 100 population, and the UK beats Japan into second place with the greatest spending per head on music sales (including downloads). Estonia and Slovakia tie third in the press freedom ranking while the UK lies twenty fourth.

Also, there are country statistical profiles showing that for instance, Slovenia, Estonia and Latvia all have populations smaller than Wales. But Wales does not get a country profile, nor in general does it have an entry in the country rankings of TV ownership (top scorer United Arab Emirates), car ownership (Luxembourg takes first place) and almost all the rest. Wales is instead represented by the United Kingdom.

For some reason The Economist does make an exception in the national obesity rankings. The percentage of obese men in the Welsh population at 18 percent is far less than the 24.0 percent of English or the 31.1 percent in the US. Unfortunately this achievement does not carry over to the younger generation. The 18 percent of obese teenage Welsh girls takes Wales to number four in this league, while boys (21 percent obese) attain eighth position in the world. Teenage cannabis usage and alcopops consumption are other high Welsh scores. But thereafter Wales disappears from the rankings, replaced by the UK.

Is this a fair representation of Wales’ position in the world? More Welsh data is certainly available to make the comparisons, in addition to the unfavourable selection chosen, beginning with population and GDP/GVA per head. Thereafter the Economist might search for other no less interesting comparators that would allow Wales to rise up the positive international rankings.

In view of its social and economic importance, sport warrants an appearance of some sort, and in an international rugby index Wales must stand a chance of getting in the top six. Under music, also, an index such as choral societies or choirs per head of population would surely be a case in point. Then entirely new headings might be created.

Were the Economist to recognize this statistical opportunity, not only would they spread useful knowledge, but they might even excite or stimulate an expanding Welsh readership.

Professor James Foreman-Peck is Director of the Welsh Institute for Research in Economics and Development at Cardiff Business School.

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