Conveying data into everyday language

29 August 2018
Avinesh Pillai, Senior Research Fellow, Department of Statistics
Avinesh Pillai

Avinesh Pillai works with more than 55 million individual pieces of anonymised information about more than 6,800 New Zealand children and their families, covering everything from their weights at birth to how far they live from their schools.

Avinesh, a senior research fellow in the Department of Statistics, is the data analytics manager for the Growing Up in New Zealand (GUiNZ) study, which is tracking the lives of these children, who were born in Auckland and Waikato in 2009 and 2010. Until they are at least 21, the study will collect information about them in six areas: family and whānau; societal context and neighbourhood; education; health and wellbeing; psychosocial and cognitive development, and culture and identity.

The analysis of information gathered by Growing Up in New Zealand, which is the largest longitudinal study of New Zealand children to date, is helping shape policies to better meet the needs of children and families. The study has released a range of reports over the years, with the latest exploring the children’s transition to primary school.

Keeping this much information in order is a big task, says Avinesh, who has been in the role since 2016; the key to managing it is good planning and processes.

“From a statistical point of view, the main challenge is to provide the datasets so that accurate linking across time can take place,” he says.

“For example, a user should be able to link data from mothers from the antenatal period through to the 54-month data (four and half years). Or, a user might want to link mothers’ data from the antenatal period to the child’s data from the 54-month period.”

Avinesh also helps researchers to access the data, showing them how to navigate the datasets available and make sense of the information they contain. This means having a good knowledge of the many and varied statistical software packages researchers use. Avinesh also reviews the analyses produced, and is a co-author on two GUiNZ papers.

The biggest thrill of being involved in the study, he says, is “observing findings that challenge the status quo.” For example, the study reported last year that new dads get the baby blues as well as new mums.

“The study found twice as many new dads experience depressive symptoms as men in the general population, and these symptoms are more likely after their baby is born than during pregnancy,” says Avinesh. “This is the opposite pattern to mothers. Who would have thought!”

And he admits he was surprised at the finding, in 2010, that nearly 40 per cent of pregnancies were unplanned.

To do this sort of work, says Avinesh, you need to have an applied statistical background and the data science skills to visualise and wrangle large datasets.

“You need to be detail oriented, but at the same time be able to see the big picture,” he adds. “People skills are very important too – you need to be able to talk data and convey findings in everyday language.”

Avinesh graduated with his MSc in Statistics from the Department of Statistics in 2001 He then moved to Sydney to work at the National Health & Medical Research Council as a medical statistician, and later George Institute for International Health, also in Sydney. He moved back to Auckland in 2011 to join the Department of Statistics.

Avinesh started a PhD in 2016;  he aims to develop a evidence-based framework for evaluating complex health interventions, using integrated administrative datasets from the Waikato and Auckland district health board regions.