Professor David Martin: a pioneer of population modelling (part 2)

Professor David Martin Professor David Martin has led the way in modelling populations in geographical information systems. His career with the UK Data Service and its predecessors has been a long and rich one

Before he steps down from the UK Data Service this month, we were fortunate enough to talk with him about his key achievements and contributions to the field.

In the first of two posts, he shared about his long history with census data as well his impressive contributions to developing census geographies.


Could you tell us about your work on time-space population modelling?

With colleagues, I have been endeavouring to build time-specific estimates of where we all are at different times. The census asks us about where we were on census night, which gives a notional reference time, but is less useful if you need a population denominator for a time-specific purpose.

For instance, if you’re an agency with responsibility for assessing risk to the population from industrial accidents, then residential population is useful to you, but only if the spillage happens in the night when most people are at home. What you really need to do is to build up layers of understanding of the distribution of population at the weekend, on a weekday, at 9 o’clock in the morning, at 7 o’clock in the evening, and so on. This is what we’ve been trying to do with time-specific population modelling.

This is where my gridded work has most recently gone. We’ve had funding from the ESRC to try and improve models for estimating the time-specific population distribution, starting with the census base and then shifting everybody to their maximum probability location given a particular time or scenario.

A reason all this work is so satisfying is that generally, after a few years, somebody works out that it is really useful and they start using it! That’s certainly been the case with the output areas, and is increasingly the case for the gridded and time-specific work as well.

It has been an ongoing feature of my career to ask how we can make small area denominators as good as possible, so we can get the best picture of what’s going on, which in turn helps us understand how to deliver services in the best possible way.


Of course, you have yet another string to your bow with your advocacy work on behalf of census users, haven’t you?

Yes, from early on in my career I got involved with the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and providing academic support for census users.

In the run up to the 2001 Census, the UK Data Service as we currently know it didn’t exist. Around 2002, the ESRC decided to renew their Census Programme, which incorporated both research and service – in other words, a network of UK universities that provided expert support and online access to census products.

It was little bit like what the UK Data Service offers now, but less joined-up, with each university funded through a separate grant. The ESRC was looking for a new coordinator, and I took on the role and ran the ESRC census program for a decade from 2002 to 2012, when it became part of what is now the UK Data Service.

The Service has been continuing with that mission ever since, doing an extraordinary amount of work harmonising all the census data and producing something unified and usable.

My role in all of this has essentially been as an advocate for academic and research users.

For the past 20 years, I’ve worked closely with all the census agencies, continually reminding them about the things that our users need from the data – whether that’s a particular angle on geographies, being able to link data together, methods advice and quality assurance, or thinking about what access and use is going to look like, especially for students and researchers.

There’s been much discussion about what form a future census might take – I explore this in an earlier post on the Data Impact blog. It’s my job to meet and speak with everybody who uses the census data to find out what effect these changes might have, and to reflect all those views back into the discussion to ensure that good decisions are made about the future.

My role with ESRC’s Census Programme also led to me serving two terms on ESRC Council, becoming quite deeply involved with the wider science funding landscape and the continual importance of positioning the social sciences within national policy debates.


How did it feel to receive an OBE for services to Geography and Population Studies.

That was a huge honour – and really reflects the work of a whole group of brilliant colleagues at the University of Southampton, across the UK Data Service, ESRC, Royal Geographical Society and in the geography community more widely.

I’m not usually one for wearing a suit and tie, but the occasion itself was very special, and also a chance to share in recognising the contributions of some amazing people from widely different sectors and backgrounds.


What will you miss about the UK Data Service?

I’m not going to be any less interested in social science data and services, and I’m sure there will be times when I’m frustrated that I won’t have all the same channels to get things done.

I’m especially going to miss working directly with people within the UK Data Service family who have in some cases been my colleagues for over 20 years!


Care to give us any clues about what you anticipate coming next?

For the last two decades the UK has been seriously discussing ways of replacing the decennial census with more continuously updated population data from a variety of administrative and survey sources.  Having come so far, it really does seem that we are on the verge of a step change, and once the 2021/22 results are complete, the concept of the traditional census dataset will increasingly be seen as part of continuously developing population data system.


And what are your own plans once you step down from the Service?

I will be continuing as a co-director of ESRC’s National Centre for Research Methods and am involved in ongoing projects with ONS and Ordnance Survey, as well as an exciting new geospatial initiative at the University of Southampton, so still expect to be very active in areas not far from UK Data Service interests!


About the author

David Martin is a Professor of Geography at the University of Southampton and a Deputy Director of the UK Data Service. 

He has been involved in several major data initiatives, including as Director of ESRC’s former Census Programme.  His research in geographic information science led to development of the system of census output areas currently used in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. David was awarded an OBE in 2019 for services to Geography and Population Studies.

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