Interested in monitoring climate change? Worried about crime rates? Curious about how opinion polls work or how to interpret them? Concerned about the risks of a new medical treatment? The solutions to all of these problems rely on statistics, the science of analyzing and interpreting data. Not surprisingly, statistics have a powerful influence on every aspect of our lives, yet very few people understand how they actually work or exactly what information we can learn from them. In honour of this science, 2013 was proclaimed to be the International Year of Statistics.

Increasing public knowledge about statistical methods and raising public awareness of the importance of statistical research are two of the primary objectives of the International Year of Statistics, a partnership between 2,280 organizations around the world, including the International Statistical Institute, Statistics Canada, and the American Statistical Association.

Over the course of 2013, hundreds of lectures and events have been organized in 128 countries, celebrating the many ways that statistics are being used to solve real-world problems. U of T is a partner organization, and its Department of Statistical Sciences decided to hold a series of six public lectures in honour of the occasion, inviting world leaders in statistical research to present their work to a wide audience.

Professor James Stafford, chair of the Department of Statistical Sciences at U of T, confirms that public outreach was a major goal in organizing the lecture series: “I wanted the audience to be people I didn’t recognize,” he says. “I didn’t want it to be a seminar series.” For Stafford, statistics is “by its very nature interdisciplinary,” a science that has applications in many fields, including biology, computer science, political science, and even the study of medieval manuscripts.

The department recently created a new specialist program in Applied Statistics. Students in the program also complete a concentration in a related discipline ­­— like pyschology, linguistics, or genetics and biotechnology, where skill in quantitative analysis is vitally important. Stafford’s own research has focused on disease mapping. By looking at the distribution of cases of a disease, researchers can identify places where there may be higher incidence of that disease. If they find such a problem area, the next question is simple: Why? Is the higher rate of cases in that area due to environmental factors, social factors, economic factors, or something else entirely? Analysis is often complicated because, for rare diseases like lupus or mesothelioma, data sets may be messy or incomplete. Yet statistical analysis, if done correctly, can still inform advances in policy and medicine.

The increasing importance of statistics is not only due to its interdisciplinary nature, but also due to the increasing amounts of data available. In the last 30 years, computers, smartphones, tablets, and the Internet have radically changed the way that information can be collected and analyzed. Fittingly, the final public lecture at U of T is entitled “Smart Use of Smart Phones and other Mobile Devices to Improve Health.” Professor Susan Murphy will deliver the talk. Murphy is a professor of both statistics and psychiatry at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan. Her research focuses on methods of data analysis that inform the development of new interventions in HIV treatment, diabetes, depression, autism, alcoholism, and obesity. The goal is to deliver analysis of that information, and therefore interventions, in real time, by using smartphones to collect information about a patient.

Professor Susan Murphy’s lecture, “Smart Use of Smartphones and other Mobile Devices to Improve Health” will be held this Thursday, November 21, at 4:00 pm in McLennan 103