This is a case study for Principle T5: Professional capability.
The Department for Transport (DfT) has been upskilling its analysts to facilitate the adoption of data science methods in the department. To help with this, DfT has established weekly Coffee and Coding sessions and bespoke R coding workshops, building on successful models used in the Department for Education and Business Enterprise Industry and Skills.
Coffee and Coding sessions aim to nurture and encourage a vibrant, supportive and inclusive coding community. They provide a regular opportunity for people to share coding skills, knowledge and advice, and to network and get to know each other. The format is usually a presentation followed by a Code Surgery. Presentations usually demonstrate a tool or technique and/or a show and tell of new work done within the department. Code Surgeries allow people to raise coding queries or ideas with the coding community; there is no such thing as a silly question and it is understood that the quest for knowledge necessarily includes failure.
The R workshops are a suite of sessions designed to train DfT’s statisticians in the basics of R coding. They are mainly based around the use of tidyverse R libraries to maintain regular standards, and include topics such as data wrangling with dplyr, graphing with ggplot2, and report automation with rmarkdown. DfT’s first cohort graduated in late 2018 and the second is due to start in early 2019.
DfT runs a mentorship programme (akin to the GDS Data Science Accelerator) to provide support to those taking on data science projects using a new tool or method. DfT expects that eventually there will be enough coders in the department that asking for statistical coding advice will be as easy to source as advice on using Excel.
A big part of DfT’s approach is to encourage people to share knowledge, so that pioneers trying methods for the first time generate resources for others to use and adapt. GitHub has become central to this process – DfT uses it to share code and host any materials from DfT’s weekly coding meetings and to signpost to useful resources online. DfT has also developed coding standards, that specify DfT’s minimum requirements for ‘good code’, whilst not burdening the developer with lots of extra work. For example, DfT requires that the master version of a script is not edited without going through a code review and encourage the use of automated testing (Continuous Integration) tools. The document is community edited so standards can evolve as change as needed.
DfT encourages analysts to use similar variants of code and to follow a style guide. For data analysis, R and Python have proved popular language choices, but there are also style differences within R and Python. For this reason, DfT has default suggested packages in DfT’s coding standards and approaches the R workshops with a consistent coding style, encouraging developers to use the Tidyverse syntax style. This means that a relatively new coder only has to learn this syntax style to be able to interpret typical code across the department.
DfT collaborates closely with its Digital Services team to ensure that the core functions of the software development tools work, making sure analysts can install packages for Python and R, use Git to version control their code, and use dependency management tools like packrat.
Senior leaders, including the Head of Profession for Statistics and managers responsible for teams of statisticians, have a good understanding of the benefits of RAP. As a result, staff are strongly supported to take time to develop new skills and improve their statistics. DfT’s RAP developments have been underpinned by a strategic goal to produce most of its statistics using a RAP approach. This has been recognised by the wider department – for example, the RAP committee won the Excellence in Learning award at the DfT 2020 Staff Celebratory Event.
This example shows how DfT staff are provided with the time and resources required to develop new coding skills, knowledge and competencies to meet DfT’s future organisational needs and how DfT is developing new quality strategies and standards.