The Royal Statistical Society Conference and Data Science

This year the UK’s Royal Statistical Society (RSS) held its annual international conference in Aberdeen between the 12th and 15th September 2022.

You may think that the society’s main conference doesn’t hold that much relevance for you as a Data Scientist. Yes, you have an interest in Data Science with a statistical flavour, but surely the main conference is all clinical trials analysis and the like, isn’t it? My job over the next 980 words is to persuade you otherwise.

Statistics is about the whole data life cycle

Go to the RSS website or look at an official email from the RSS and you’ll see that the RSS strapline is “Data | Evidence | Decisions”. This accurately reflects the breadth of topics covered at the conference – in the session talks, the posters, and the plenary lectures. Statistics is about data, and modern statistics now concerns itself with all aspects related to data – how it is collected, how it is analysed, how models are built from that data, how inferences are made from those models, and how decisions are made off the back of those inferences. A modern general statistics conference now has to reflect the full end-to-end lifecycle of data and also the computational and engineering workflows that go with it. This year’s RSS conference did just that.

A Strong Data Science focus

Over the three main days of the conference there were 7 specific sessions dedicated to Data Science, totalling 8hrs and 20mins of talks. You can see from the full list below the breadth covered in the Data Science sessions.  

  • Novel applications and Data Sets
  • Introduction to MLOps
  • The secret sauce of Open Source
  • Data Science for Health Equity
  • The UK’s future data research infrastructure
  • Epidemiological applications of Data Science
  • Algorithmic bias and ethical considerations in Data Science

On top of this there were Data Science topics in the 8 rapid fire talk sessions and in the 110 accepted posters. Example Data Science related topics included MLOps, Decentralized finance, Genetic algorithms, Kernels for optimal compression of distributions, Changepoint detection, Quantifying the Shannon entropy of a histogram, Digital Twins, Joint node degree estimation in Erdos-Renyi networks, Car club usage prediction, and Deep hierarchical classification of crop types from satellite images.

A growing Data Science presence

I’ve been involved with the conference board this year and last (Manchester 2021) and my perception is the size of the conference in increasing, in terms of number of submissions and attendees, the range of topics, and the amount of Data Science represented. However, I only have two datapoints here. One of those was just as the UK was coming out of its first Covid-19 lockdown, so will probably not provide a representative baseline. So I’m not going to stick my neck out too much here, but I do expect further increases in the amount of Data Science presence at next year’s conference.

Other relevant sessions

If like me you work primarily as a Data Scientist in a commercial environment, then there were also many talks from other Sections of the RSS that were highly relevant. The Business, Industry and Finance section had talks on Explainable AI, Novel Applications of Statistics in Business, and Democratisation of Statistics in GlaxoSmithKline, whilst the Professional Development section had talks on Linked Open Data, programming in R and Python, and the new Quarto scientific publishing system.

The Future of the Data Science Profession

Of particular relevance to Data Scientists was the Professional Development section’s talk on the new Alliance for Data Science Professionals accreditations of which the RSS is part. The session walked through the various paths to accreditation and the collaborative nature of the application process. This was backed up by a Data Science ‘Beer and Pizza’ event hosted by Brian Tarran (former Significance magazine editor and now RSS Head of Data Science Platform) and Ricky McGowan (RSS Head of Standards and Corporate Relations) who both explained some of the RSS long-term plans for Data Science.

Diversity of topics across the whole conference

Diversity of topics was a noticeable theme emerging from the conference as a whole, not just in the Data Science and commercial statistics streams. For me, this reflects the broader desire of the RSS to embrace Data Scientists and any practitioners who are involved with analysing and handling data. It reflects a healthy antidote to the ‘Two cultures of statistical modelling‘ divide identified and discussed by Leo Breiman many years ago.

For example, the range of plenary talks was equally impressive as the diversity of topics in the various sessions. Like many Data Scientists my original background was a PhD in Theoretical Physics. So, a talk from Ewain Gwynne on Random Surfaces and Liouville Quantum Gravity – see picture below – took me back 30 years and also gave me an enjoyable update on what has happened in the field in those intervening years.

Ewain Gwynne talking about Random Surfaces and Liouville Quantum Gravity.

Other plenary highlights for me were Ruth King’s Barnett lecture on statistical ecology and Adrian Raftery’s talk on the challenges of forecasting world populations out to the year 2100 and as far as 2300 – see below.

Adrian Raftery talking about Bayesian Demography.

A friendly conference

The conference is not a mega-conference. We not talking NeurIPS or ICML. It was around 600 attendees – big enough not to be too insular and focused only on one or two topics, but still small enough to be welcoming, friendly and very sociable. There were social events on every evening of the conference. And to top it all, it was even sunny in Aberdeen for the whole week.

I also got to play pool against the person who led the UK’s COVID-19 dashboard work, reporting the UK government’s official daily COVID-19 stats to the general public. I lost 2-1. I now hold a grudge.

Next year – Harrogate 2023

Next year’s conference is in Harrogate, 4th – 7th September 2023. I will be going. Between now and then I will be practicing my pool for a revenge match. I will also be involved with the conference board again, helping to shape the Data Science content. I can promise a wide range of Data Science contributions and talks on other statistical topics Data Scientists will find interesting. I can’t promise sunshine, but that’s Yorkshire for you.

© 2022 David Hoyle. All Rights Reserved

How many iterations are needed for the bisection algorithm?


  • The bisection algorithm is a very simple algorithm for finding the root of a 1-D function.
  • Working out the number of iterations of the algorithm required to determine the root location within a specified tolerance can be determined from a very simple little hack, which I explain here.
  • Things get more interesting when we consider variants of the bisection algorithm, where we cut an interval into unequal portions.


A little while ago a colleague mentioned that they were repeatedly using an off-the-shelf bisection algorithm to find the root of a function. The algorithm required the user to specify the number of iterations to run the bisection for. Since my colleague was running the algorithm repeatedly they wanted to set the number of iterations efficiently and also to achieve a guaranteed level of accuracy, but they didn’t know how to do this.

I mentioned that it was very simple to do this and it was a couple of lines of arithmetic in a little hack that I’d used many times. Then I realised that the hack was obvious and known to me because I was old – I’d been doing this sort of thing for years. My colleague hadn’t. So I thought the hack would be a good subject for a short blog post.

The idea behind a bisection algorithm is simple and illustrated in Figure 1 below.

How the bisection algorithm works
Figure 1: Schematic of how the bisection algorithm works

At each iteration we determine whether the root is to the right of the current mid-point, in the right-hand interval, or to the left of the current mid-point, in the left-hand interval. In either case, the range within which we locate the root halves. We have gone from knowing it was in the interval [x_{lower}, x_{upper}], which has width x_{upper}-x_{lower}, to knowing it is in an interval of width \frac{1}{2}(x_{upper}-x_{lower}). So with every iteration we reduce our uncertainty of where the root is located by half. After N iterations we have reduced our initial uncertainty by (1/2)^{N}. Given our initial uncertainty is determined by the initial bracketing of the root, i.e.  an interval of width (x_{upper}^{(initial)}-x_{lower}^{(initial)}), we can now work out that after N iterations we have narrowed down the root to an interval of width {\rm initial\;width} \times \left ( \frac{1}{2}\right ) ^{N}. Now if we want to locate the root to within a tolerance {\rm tol}, we just have to keep iterating until the uncertainty reaches {\rm tol}. That is, we run for N iterations where N satisfies,

\displaystyle N\;=\; -\frac{\ln({\rm initial\;width/tol})}{\ln\left (\frac{1}{2} \right )}

Strictly speaking we need to run for \lceil N \rceil iterations. Usually I will add on a few extra iterations, e.g. 3 to 5, as an engineering safety factor.

As a means of easily and quickly determining the number of iterations to run a bisection algorithm the calculation above is simple, easy to understand and a great little hack to remember.

Is bisection optimal?

The bisection algorithm works by dividing into two our current estimate of the interval in which the root lies. Dividing the interval in two is efficient. It is like we are playing the childhood game “Guess Who”, where we ask questions about the characters’ features in order to eliminate them.

Asking about a feature that approximately half the remaining characters possess is the most efficient – it has a reasonable probability of applying to the target character and eliminates half of the remaining characters. If we have single question, with a binary outcome and a probability p of one of those outcomes, then the question that has p = \frac{1}{2} maximizes the expected information (the entropy), p\ln (p)\;+\; (1-p)\ln(1-p).

Dividing the interval unequally

When we first played “Guess Who” as kids we learnt that asking questions with a much lower probability p of being correct didn’t win the game. Is the same true for our root finding algorithm? If instead we divide each interval into unequal portions is the root finding less efficient than when we bisect the interval?

Let’s repeat the derivation but with a different cut-point e.g. 25% along the current interval bracketing the root. In general we can test whether the root is to the left of right of a point that is a proportion \phi along the current interval, meaning the cut-point is x_{lower} + \phi (x_{upper}-x_{lower}). At each iteration we don’t know in advance which side of the cut-point the root lies until we test for it, so in trying to determine in advance the number of iterations we need to run, we have to assume the worst case scenario and assume that the root is still in the larger of the two intervals. The reduction in uncertainty is then, {\rm max}\{\phi, 1-\phi\}. Repeating the derivation we find that we have to run at least,

\displaystyle N_{Worst\;Case}\;=\;\ -\frac{\ln({\rm initial\;width/tol})}{\ln\left ({\rm max}\{\phi, 1 - \phi \right \})}

iterations to be guaranteed that we have located the root to within tol.

Now to determine the cut-point \phi that minimizes the upper bound on number of iterations required, we simply differentiate the expression above with respect to \phi. Doing so we find,

\displaystyle \frac{\partial N_{Worst\;Case}}{\partial \phi} \;=\; -\frac{\ln({\rm initial\;width/tol})}{ (1-\phi) \left ( \ln (1 - \phi) \right )^{2}} \;\;,\;\; \phi < \frac{1}{2}


\displaystyle \frac{\partial N_{Worst\;Case}}{\partial \phi} \;=\; \frac{\ln({\rm initial\;width/tol})}{\phi \left ( \ln (\phi) \right)^{2}} \;\;,\;\; \phi > \frac{1}{2}

The minimum of N_{Worst\;Case} is at \phi =\frac{1}{2}, although \phi=\frac{1}{2} is not a stationary point of the upper bound N_{Worst\;Case}, as N_{Worst\;Case} has a discontinuous gradient there.

That is the behaviour of the worst-case scenario. A similar analysis can be applied to the best-case scenario – we simply replace max with min in all the above formula. That is, in the best-case scenario the number of iterations required is given by,

\displaystyle N_{Best\;Case}\;=\;-\frac{\ln({\rm initial\;width/tol})}{\ln\left ({\rm min}\{\phi, 1 - \phi \right \})}

Here, the maximum of the best-case number of iterations occurs when \phi = \frac{1}{2}.

That’s the worst-case and best-case scenarios, but how many iterations do we expect to use on average? Let’s look at the expected reduction in uncertainty in the root location after N iterations. In a single iteration a root that is randomly located within our interval will lie, with probability \phi, in segement to the left of our cut-point and leads to a reduction in the uncertainty by a factor of \phi. Similarly, we get a reduction in uncertainty of 1-\phi with probability 1-\phi if our randomly located root is to the right of the cut-point. So after N iterations the expected reduction in uncertainty is,

\displaystyle {\rm Expected\;reduction}\;=\;\left ( \phi^{2}\;+\;(1-\phi)^{2}\right )^{N}

Using this as an approximation to determine the typical number of iterations, we get,

\displaystyle N_{Expected\;Reduction}\;=\;-\frac{\ln({\rm initial\;width/tol})}{\ln\left ( \phi^{2} + (1-\phi)^{2} \right )}

This still isn’t the expected number of iterations, but to see how it compares Figure 2 belows shows simulation estimates of \mathbb{E}\left ( N \right ) plotted against \phi when the root is random and uniformly distributed within the original interval.

The number of iterations needed for the bisection algorithm
Number of iterations required for the different root finding methods.

For Figure 2 we have set w = ({\rm initial\;width/tol}) = 0.01. Also plotted in Figure 2 are our three theoretical estimates, \lceil N_{Worst\;Case}\rceil, \lceil N_{Best\;Case}\rceil, \lceil N_{Expected\;Reduction}\rceil. The stepped structure in these 3 integer quantities is clearly apparent, as is how many more iterations are required under the worst case method when \phi \neq \frac{1}{2}.

The expected number of iterations required, \mathbb{E}( N ), actually shows a rich structure that isn’t clear unless you zoom in. Some aspects of that structure were unexpected, but requires some more involved mathematics to understand. I may save that for a follow-up post at a later date.

© 2022 David Hoyle. All Rights Reserved