Using statistics to make sense of our world at the 2018 Mathematical and Computational Sciences Showcase

24 September 2018

If you let a pregnant rat loose on pest-free Rangitōtō, how fast might the population grow? And on the subject of elusive animals, might it be more accurate to estimate a population of rare creatures by their calls rather than trying to catch them? And how can you use social media photos of the Eiffel Tower to encourage statistical enquiry in students?

These three questions were answered by three Statistics staff members who spoke at the 2018 Mathematical and Computational Sciences Showcase for alumni, postgraduate students and friends on Saturday.

The departments of Statistics, Computer Science and Mathematics came together to present short and lively talks on current research, display hands-on technology and present postgraduate students’ work. The annual event is now in its third year.

The day’s first speaker, Associate Professor Simon Harris, migrated to New Zealand from England this year, and adores pest-free Rangitōtō Island – here’s already been there twice. He’s also a theoretical probabilist, and he illustrated his work by speculating about what might happen should a pregnant rat be let loose on the island.

Simon showed an attentive audience a simple population model and explained how pest control can influence rat numbers. He also described how spatial branching processes could be used to predict how the rodents might spread across the island; we can only hope he never has to use such a model because of a real-life rat re-invasion. Read more about Simon’s work here.

The second speaker was Dr Ben Stevenson, who focused on statistics to estimate animal numbers. It’s hard to catch animals, he said, but it’s possible to use microphone arrays to capture their calls – this is called acoustic detection – and then use statistical tools to estimate location and abundance.

So far, he has worked with data relating to gibbons, frogs and whales; for the latter, researchers use sonobuoys designed originally to listen for submarines. Read more about Ben’s work here.

The third speaker was Anna Fergusson, who loves Paris – she got engaged there in 2014 – and has turned that love into an example of statistical exploration that could be used in the classroom. She trawled public posts on social media to find pictures taken within 500 m of the Eiffel Tower, and used geographical data embedded in them to find a popular spot.

She then combined key features of the photo into an iconic image, and created a “postcard”, adding the most popular emoji from the collected posts (the French flag), the most frequent English words as the text (“beauty” and “magnificent” were among them) and added the most popular hashtag: #paris.

Her talk was an illuminating illustration of how data can be text and images as well as numbers, and how personal stories can be a platform to enthuse young people about statistical enquiry.

  • Read more about Anna’s work here.
  • See photos from the day on the Department of Statistics Facebook page.
Statistics speakers (left to right): Simon Harris, Anna Fergusson and Ben Stevenson spoke at the alumni showcase on Saturday.
Statistics speakers (left to right): Associate Professor Simon Harris, Anna Fergusson and Dr Ben Stevenson spoke at the alumni showcase on Saturday.
This is the postcard created from social media pics of the Eiffel Tower- with some intervention by statistics educator Anna Fergusson.
This is the postcard created from social media pics of the Eiffel Tower- with some intervention by statistics educator Anna Fergusson.