Professor Chris Wild: Visualising the future

27 October 2017
Professor Chris Wild
Professor Chris Wild

Professor Chris Wild says going part-time as a lengthy prelude to retirement will allow him to “indulge his passions”. He’s not talking about putting his feet up here; rather, Chris wants to spend more time looking at “what software can do for teaching and the statistical empowerment of society at large; broadening what you can see in data and reducing the time it takes to be able to see it”.

Chris is a statistical educator through and through – he wants the widest possible range of people to be statistically literate so they can make good use of the masses of data around us all. A good example of this is the free, online data analysis course he co-created, Data to Insight. Launched in 2014, it has attracted thousands of students from all over the world.

The course draws on another of Chris’ passions – using visualisation to help people get their heads around statistical concepts and relationships. “I’ve always had a visual imagination and I enjoy indulging it, particularly in what you can do with movement and visual transitions whereby elements morph into becoming other elements, thus showing the relationships between them. Or allowing the user to experience processes developing over time.” That show-me approach also underpins iNZight, his free, widely-used statistical visualisation tool that helps students to understand statistical ideas quickly and explore data. Chris also has a YouTube channel called Wild About Statistics.

Chris, a Kiwi, started at the University of Auckland as a student in 1971, and apart from a stint at Canada’s University of Waterloo doing his PhD, has been here ever since. But statistical education wasn’t always such an intense focus. That was a bit of a happy accident – in 1996, he was asked to supervise maths educator Maxine Pfannkuch’s PhD, and she was his introduction to statistics education research. In an interview with the Royal Statistics Society, Chris said that “it wasn’t really a supervisor/student relationship. We were both learning together.”

The pair’s early interest was in developing models for the way statisticians think to underpin research and the development of teaching tools. The first major paper they wrote together, an engaging and accessible read that characterises statistical thinking, has been cited 1092 times (and climbing). Maxine is now also a lauded statistical education leader; Chris says Maxine and the late Alastair Scott have provide his “longest and most intense collaborations.” Alastair and Chris made a major theoretical contribution to outcome-dependent (or case-control) sampling. Another important collaborator was George Seber, with whom Chris wrote a 1989 book on nonlinear regression. It has been cited more than 3,000 times.

Ask Chris about the highlights of his career and he gives a typically understated response: “I’ve written the odd thing that I’m not ashamed of. The Department survived my tenure as Head of Department intact.” (He was head from 2003 to 2007). Chris has also been part of award-winning teaching teams – read more about his numerous accolades.

In seems that in statistics as in life, the more things change, the more they stay the same: The biggest transformation Chris has seen during his career “has been the shift from an almost exclusively mathematical world towards a computationally-intensive world. What has surprised me has been the speed and extensiveness of change, but despite this, how much the important, early work retains its currency”.

Chris officially went part-time in July. He’s on a part-time contract until at least 2020, and says he hasn’t yet considered what he’s going to do with a bit more leisure time. “I haven’t really thought that through. I think some bigger blocks of time for travel, particularly while some of my family is overseas.”