Ensuring the quality of statistics using scientific methods

/ Author: Miriam van der Sangen
Mark van der Loo, senior methodologist at Statistics Netherlands (CBS)
© Sjoerd van der Hucht Fotografie / My Eyes4u productions
CBS uses scientifically proven methods to guarantee the quality of its products and services. And if there is one person at CBS with a wealth of expertise in this area, both nationally and internationally, it is Mark van der Loo. He was the one who made sure that CBS was one of the world’s first statistics agencies to introduce R for statistics and data analysis, for instance. He has also made a significant contribution to the development of expertise in methodology and IT on many fronts.

Introduction to R

Mark van der Loo is a senior methodologist at Statistics Netherlands (CBS). In that role, he was the driving force behind the introduction of R, an open source software product developed especially for statistics and data analysis. ‘CBS has been using R since 2009 and it was one of the first statistics agencies in the world to roll out this software. R is open source software that you can easily share with others and has since been embraced by countless international statisticians, methodologists and data scientists. There is also an extensive international community of users who share knowledge and experience in this field.’ Van der Loo has played a role in writing a total of 20 R packages and written about these in scientific journals.

New data sources

For 15 years now, this senior methodologist has been teaching courses on R, both nationally and internationally. In addition, he and his colleague Edwin de Jonge have written a book about it, entitled Statistical Data Cleaning with applications in R. The book is published by Wiley, a renowned US publishing house. ‘Data cleaning is an essential part of producing statistics. It always was, but it has become even more important with the use of new data sources. CBS works with many different data sources, but they are not always complete and free of errors. Assessing quality and making repairs where possible is a prerequisite for achieving good quality statistics.’

European Statistical System

Because of his years of experience with R, Van der Loo became associate editor at The R Journal in 2021. He is now editor-in-chief and responsible for the quality of articles and deadlines. But R is not the only area in which Van der Loo has extensive international experience and expertise. For 10 years, he also worked on behalf of CBS as an international coordinator in the field of methodology and IT. ‘That involved a lot of close cooperation with the United Nations and various statistics agencies across Europe. One of the priorities was working on the European Statistical System (ESS). The aim of the ESS is to ensure collaboration and coordination between statistics agencies, so that statistics produced within the European Union can be compared.’ Van der Loo is also coordinator for the EMOS programme. ‘EMOS stands for European Master’s in Official Statistics. In the EMOS programme, we train students from Utrecht and Leiden University to compile official statistics.’ Since 2022 he has also been working as a research fellow at Leiden University, a role that involves supervising the doctoral research of a PhD candidate.

CBS Academy

In 2022, Van der Loo was appointed as programme manager at the CBS Academy. In a world where so many developments are happening so quickly in rapid succession, it is important for organisations and their staff to keep pace and move with the times. This is exactly why the CBS Academy was established at CBS in 2019. ‘The way in which statistics are produced is evolving and modernising. That means that staff need new skills. I produced a vision document on this subject and we are now making the required changes to the training that we provide. CBS wants to become a learning organisation, but that requires a cultural shift. The CBS Academy is helping to bring that about. It not only offers professional knowledge, but also training in the area of personal development and it contributes to a culture in which learning is a routine part of everybody’s work. The CBS Academy provides about 120 learning activities every year, provided by 80 to 100 internal trainers.’

Part of the team

So what makes his work at CBS so interesting? ‘It’s the combination of all those different activities. I’m a researcher at heart, but I also enjoy working in all kinds of different groups. I very much enjoy being part of the R community, for example: people help each other. And my international work is also very interesting. Take the ISI congress that will be held in the Netherlands in 2025, for example. It will bring together statisticians from all over the world and I’ll be involved in organising various courses there.’ Finally, this senior methodologist says it was great that he has been able to acquire expertise in his field and in organisational terms at CBS. ‘I’ve always had a lot of support from my colleagues in that area. There’s a great sense of team spirit at CBS and it’s an enjoyable place to work!’