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Statistics Without Borders Celebrates 15th Year, Aims to Update Charter

1 May 2023 423 views No Comment

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Matt Brems (he/him) is principal data scientist, technical excellence and product at DataRobot. He also founded BetaVector, a data science consultancy. Brems volunteers with Statistics Without Borders, serving on its executive committee as chair. He is a mentor with the Washington Statistical Society and Coding It Forward.


A brown-skinned woman with long, wavy dark hair and big earrings smiles.


Sloka Iyengar is a neuroscientist and Indian classical dancer, passionate about relieving suffering through the sciences and arts. She is creating the foundation for the use of Bharatanatyam for creative aging and has developed productions that explore the intersections between the arts and neuroscience. Iyengar serves as the director of marketing and communication at Statistics Without Borders.


Over the last 15 years, Statistics Without Borders volunteers have completed hundreds of projects around the world for not-for-profit and nongovernmental organizations. (Right now, there are active projects in Austria, Canada, Egypt, India, Malawi, Nigeria, and the United States.) They have accomplished this with support from the American Statistical Association but without accepting remuneration for their work.

In the last 15 years, the following has changed:

  • Many projects have expanded beyond what one might expect from ‘statistics.’ There’s no bright line separating what is statistics from what is not, but projects increasingly involve aspects of software development, data engineering, and machine learning.
  • The availability of the internet, open-source software, and resources to self-educate has made it significantly easier to do more across the globe.
  • The importance of incorporating justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion into all work and decisions has become central.

Statistics Without Borders’ leadership last updated the outreach group’s charter in 2018, and they have recently been facing some good, but tough, questions from their volunteers—questions about the types of organizations they support and the commitments they make to their volunteers. For some questions, they don’t yet have great answers, so they are taking an opportunity to reflect.

Members of the executive committee connected for a strategic retreat in February. Michiko Wolcott volunteered her time and expertise to lead the governing board through the retreat, and they came away hoping to align the following:

  • Vision: What is the ideal state of our world, as described by SWB?
  • Mission: What does SWB do to help achieve its vision?
  • Guiding Principles: What core values help dictate SWB’s actions and choices?

Information for External Use

Statistics Without Borders’ mission, vision, and guiding principles help people understand what the group is and does. If one has never heard of SWB and is thinking about recommending a client or volunteering, it’s important to know what SWB is. The vision, mission, and guiding principles provide that first insight into SWB.

A statistical analogy is principal component analysis. If you aren’t familiar with PCA, it’s an unsupervised learning technique. If you have many variables in your data, PCA can be used to combine these variables in a specific way. Your first principal component is the “most important” dimension of your data. That is, if you could only keep one dimension of your data, PCA indicates which is most important. (PCA does a lot more and uses a specific definition of most important.)

If you don’t have much time to read about SWB, reading its vision, mission, and guiding principles is like using the first principal component from your data in a model. This information won’t tell you everything about SWB, but it may be the information with the highest impact. It allows SWB to communicate effectively with prospective clients, partner organizations, and future volunteers.

Information for Internal Use

SWB governing board members want to empower volunteers to make decisions faster. Fifteen years ago, when four statisticians founded SWB at JSM, it was feasible for members of the executive committee to make most decisions. Now, SWB consists of roughly 2,500 volunteers throughout the world who complete around 30 projects annually. Governing board members know they need to make changes to how SWB operates to keep up. An updated and clearly communicated vision, mission, and set of guiding principles is key to empowering volunteers to make more decisions themselves.

When a volunteer—at any level of the organization—has a question about what decision they should make, the ideal outcome is they look to the vision, mission, and guiding principles. They might ask themselves, “In making this decision, am I fulfilling SWB’s mission? Am I moving us toward SWB’s vision? Would an action violate any of SWB’s guiding principles?”

Updating the vision, mission, and guiding principles isn’t a perfect solution, but it’s a start.

So, What Are the Vision, Mission, and Guiding Principles?

The governing board members are still working on them. If they intend to use them as fundamental building blocks for the work they do, they think it is paramount they get them right, and that takes time. They are also requesting feedback from all SWB volunteers by conducting surveys, holding office hours, and meeting directly with some of the most active volunteers. However, they have identified the following important themes:

  • Greater Good. How do they prioritize the competing needs of the world, communities they aim to help, clients, and volunteers?
  • Do No Harm. SWB’s work should be positive and never harmful, but it’s more important that SWB’s impact is positive and never harmful.
  • Professional Integrity and Ethics. As with any statistics work, this includes impartiality in their analyses. SWB should not simply be a ‘stamp of legitimacy’ for a client’s predetermined outcome. Instead, SWB should be their clients’ partner, empowering them with statistical expertise. That might include training them on proper statistical methods, doing statistical work themselves, or both.
  • Equity. Governing board members are taking steps to diversify SWB’s membership at every level, but they think they can and have a responsibility to do more.

As SWB turns 15, governing board members are turning their attention toward 25 years and beyond. At JSM in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, they will have lots of updates regarding their new strategic direction.
To recommend clients to SWB or volunteer, email chair.statisticswithoutborders@gmail.com.

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