Solving real-world problems

A statistical application developed by Prof. Håvard Rue has transformed data analysis, interpretation and communication.

© 2018 KAUST

Statistics is the science of learning from data, with statisticians providing valuable insights into the most pressing problems facing humanity, such as the health impacts of pollution to the spread of infectious diseases.

Researchers need to understand statistics if they are to make informed decisions.

“Providing the tools for scientists to better understand real-world problems means policymakers have access to reliable data for making important decisions that affect many aspects of life, from health and the environment to the economy and social issues,” explains KAUST Professor of Statistics Håvard Rue.

Rue is a pioneer in the field of computational Bayesian statistics, a method that applies probabilities to statistical problems, leading to faster and more accurate predictions. His work focuses on the application of integrated nested Laplace approximations (INLA), an approach for undertaking Bayesian inference that updates conclusions that are drawn from statistical models in the light of new data.

“The main issues with Bayesian modeling are speed and accuracy,” explains Rue. “Normally you have to trade speed for accuracy, but with INLA you get both. It’s almost too good to be true.”

The INLA approach represents a different way of analyzing high-dimensional datasets containing thousands of measurements—such as those used for modeling climate or predicting weather models—and are too complex for methods like Markov chain Monte Carlo sampling, which are time-consuming and impractical for very large models.

To help apply the INLA statistical method and to better analyze increasingly large datasets, Rue and his colleagues developed the R-INLA statistical software package, which enables INLA application in diverse fields, from healthcare to ecology.

For example, Gavin Shaddick, professor of Data Science and Statistics at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom, used R-INLA to analyze a database containing data from more than 4,300 cities in 100-plus countries to model the health and environmental impacts from air pollution.

“Air pollution is a major risk factor for global health with 4.2 million deaths annually attributed to fine particulate matter pollution,” says Shaddick. “Without R-INLA we would not have been able to perform these analyses on a global scale.”

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