Black Swans: Statisticians Who Share

Cate Hanlon hears from the student behind the clever new way to optimise group study and learn from our peers.

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Photo: Jack Dry

Fourth year maths student Jack Dry has created Black Swans, an online statistics community. Members can ask and answer questions, but the site differs from traditional forums in its other features. Statisticians can share their research, and interviews with leading figures in the field will be posted.

“You might write a post if you are stuck on a problem from a statistics lecture or module and you wanted someone to give you a nudge in the right direction,” said Mr Dry. “It could also be that you have done some sort of exciting statistics research, and you simply wanted to share the story and inspire other people.”

Users can compare ideas and recommend videos. Mr Dry is also interested in organizing meetups as more users join. Any user would be able to organize an event with presentations and networking opportunities.

“Nothing beats meeting people face-to-face,” said Mr Dry. “It’s all well and good having this statistics community, but I don’t think it will ever be as tight-knit as I want it to be if people are always hidden away behind their screens. I’ve got to start it online just so I can find people, but then I really want it to be more of a person-to-person community.”

Black Swans was launched mid-summer, and so far has 130 users. Dry took about a month to develop the site using his own programming tool. His goal is to have 1000 people signed up by Christmas.

“I couldn’t find a site like it,” said Mr Dry. “A fault with so many forums […] is that they try to expand into too many areas.”

The name was inspired by a book of the same title by statistician Nassim Taleb. A black swan in statistics is a rare or unpredictable event.

Most users are under 35. 36 percent of users are from the US, and 27 percent are from the UK. Mr Dry attributes this large American contingency to his activity on Reddit.

Participants originally needed a university email, but that was restricting students from other countries. Most of the members are students or lecturers.

Mr Dry is now hoping to expand the St Andrews involvement. Some lecturers have offered to speak about Black Swans during introductory lectures.

Statistics are notoriously irritating and have an unfortunate habit of cropping up in the subjects you least expect them. Students can seek help from lecturers, from CAPOD, and now from Black Swans. Mr Dry hopes that his website can work in conjunction with more traditional university structures instead of competing with them.

The anonymous nature of the site may relieve stress or shame students have when seeking help, and the community may offer a different approach to a problem than the lecturer or tutor did.

However, some members of the University have expressed concern about students using Black Swans to cheat on their coursework, having a network of statisticians at their disposal. To prevent this, there is a stipulation in the terms and conditions that if members are using the system for answers to coursework, their account will be deleted. The hope is that other students (or lecturers!) from the University would see the post and report it.

“There are lots of statistics forums, but they are simply question-and-answer, not a community in the sense that I want to build,” said Mr Dry.

Interested students can sign up at blackswans.io.

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