ITT8 in June 2018 opened with a celebration of SAMBa’s first completed PhD student, Marcus Kaiser, and also noted another first – a government minister here to present some problems for us to consider. This was José Molinas, Minister for Planning in the government of Paraguay, who had come to seek help with statistical modelling of survey data targeting extreme poverty in Paraguay. After a successful week of problem formulation at the ITT, it was agreed that a academics Julian Faraway and Karim Anaya-Izquierdo , along with students Kevin Olding, Teo Deveney, Malena Sabaté Landman and Marcus Kaiser would visit Asunción to continue this work and to help build statistical capacity within the Ministry.
Arriving in Paraguay the team were flattered and somewhat surprised to find they were VIPs in Asunción - met by hosts Rafa and Angie as they walked off the plane they were whisked to the hotel in the Presidential car. Lunch in a local Paraguayan restaurant gave us a feel of what was to come in the rest of the week - a traditional lunch of steaks sandwiched by more steaks. The food split the group somewhat - Teo describing it as ‘the best meal of my life’, whilst South America was to be slightly less delicious for the vegan in the group, Marcus, who could only describe his diet there as ‘crackers’.
The workshop began in earnest on Monday with a meeting with the José, followed by introductions and a plan for the week. There was time for a quick trip to the local shops to buy some souvenirs at lunch and the rest of the day was taken up with Julian and Karim delivering a workshop for delegates from three departments in the Ministry who learnt about reading and manipulating data, creating plots, and applying linear models, decisions trees and random forests amongst other things.
After the workshop, the students were given a tour of Asunción, and this also gave them a chance to get to know Laura Oporto better, a Paraguayan student who will be joining the SAMBa programme as part of cohort 5 this October. Laura joined the group for the whole week and got a taste of what is to come next year whilst also making valuable contributions to the week’s work herself, not least as one of a few in the group to speak both Spanish and English.
Part way through the workshop, the group split into two, with Karim, Malena and Kevin (who had concealed his knowledge of Spanish until this point) working with a Spanish speaking team to clean the two survey datasets and to create a common set of variables that could be used for model building and prediction. Julian, Marcus and Teo continued the statistical teaching with some more advanced topics with the English-speaking group, including further statistical methods and a workshop on machine learning and image processing led by Teo and Marcus.
One lunchtime the team all became multi-millionaires (in Paraguayan Guarani at least) as they cashed the cheques to cover the cost of the hotel. Phones and cameras were banned in the beautiful grand old bank this was collected at, so there is sadly no evidence of this moment. This was perhaps for the best though, as Julian discovered that knives were also banned as he tried to get past the armed security with his trusty penknife. Anyway, the guards believed his story that it was just for opening difficult bottles of Baileys and so we were on our way.
The group was very well hosted in the evenings, including one that started with a bar crawl around some of the more picturesque parts of Asunción including one modelled on a ‘speakeasy’ from the prohibition era in the US. Unfortunately amidst the excitement of the week our hosts had forgotten to research a fact needed to get in, the answer the question ‘Who was the first presenter of the Oscars in 1929?’ Not to worry though, why travel with a Professor if not for moments like this, and Julian stepped in and confidently with the answer ‘James Cagney’ and the bouncer moved away from the door and let us pass. The quiz buffs amongst you might know the answer is actually Douglas Fairbanks, so we can only assume he’d been tipped off either that Julian was an eminent Professor, or perhaps that he was still carrying his knife.
Wednesday was the 1st of August, when in Paraguay it is traditional to drink ‘carrulim’ in the morning, made of sugar cane, rum and lime to keep in good health and wealth through the winter months. Mostly the morning drinking didn’t hit productivity too badly, but we did suspect Karim had taken one too many sips when he started trying to crack the safe outside the workshop rooms.
The workshop also continued at pace and once the data cleaning was done Malena also translated the more advanced statistical topics into Spanish and delivered them to her half of the group. In the evening the team met the British Ambassador to Paraguay for coffee and were also treated to a home cooked dinner at the Minister’s house, though nobody told Karim that he would have to do the cooking…
On the final day the groups came back together to apply what they had learned and competed to find the best fitting model for the data. Very close to the end of the day, Rafa was in the lead, having fitted a model with the lowest RMSE for the test data, but Julian came through at the last minute with what can only be described as a very sneaky GAM to win his own prize. Time for a few presentations and one final outing to some local bars before saying farewells and heading back home.
We would like to take the chance to thank everyone who made this trip possible. Thank you in particular to José Molinas for the vision and inspiration to set the partnership in motion, to Rafa and Angie and everyone else in Paraguay who made us feel so welcome whilst we were there. Also to the Ministry of Planning and the British Embassy in Paraguay for their support of the project and to the University of Bath’s Alumni fund whose generous support allowed students from SAMBa to travel along with the academics to provide assistance.