Lancaster student brings data science skills to help local foodbank


Daniel Clarkson
Daniel Clarkson

A Lancaster University postgraduate student has been able to apply his statistical and data science skills to help a local foodbank respond to the needs of local people.

Daniel Clarkson, who is studying for a PhD in Statistics at Lancaster University, has been volunteering his spare time to help at the Morecambe Bay Foodbank, which is currently based at The Platform in Morecambe.

In addition to helping out with general operations, packing food parcels and doing deliveries, Mr Clarkson has been able to apply his number-crunching abilities to provide new insights to help inform and guide the foodbank’s activities.

Mr Clarkson, who is originally from St Annes-on-Sea moved to Lancaster in 2014 for his undergraduate studies in Mathematics. He then stayed on to study for an MSc in Statistics before starting his PhD as part of the Data Science of the Natural Environment programme.

He said: “I started volunteering at the foodbank about two years ago during the summer of my Masters degree at Lancaster. A couple of months in, the manager, Annette Smith, realised that I was studying Statistics and asked if I could help with some analysis of their data, and I've been lending a hand ever since. 

“The main benefit is being able to visualise the data that the foodbank collects to then use it to plan for future operations. Before I started doing the stats work, the main statistics used by the foodbank were the basic summary statistics automatically calculated by the data portal, which were totals of vouchers processed and the number of people fed for a given time range.”

Vouchers are given to people in crisis, and who require emergency food supplies, by referral agents such as Citizens Advice and The Salvation Army. The foodbank provides them with a food parcel that contains three days' worth of food for themselves and their family, as well as extras such as shampoo, deodorant, and pet food. 

“Since then, we've been able to visualise trends in demand over time to inform the number of volunteer hours and donations the foodbank needs. We can look at where our clients come from to see if any areas are in particular need of help, look for trends in the clients who use the foodbank most and are most in need of assistance, and communicate the work we do to other organisations and to the public,” he added. “The foodbank has an amazing team of staff and volunteers who put in countless hours of work to help their community, and it's a real privilege to work with them all.”

Joanna Young, the Chair of Trustees at Morecambe Bay Foodbank, said: “Dan's ability to create an analysis of our foodbank data has been incredibly useful. It has allowed us to get a much more detailed look at where clients are coming from and how often they are using the foodbank. During Covid-19 this has been critical, to allow us to understand why people were using the foodbank and what was affecting their ability to access food in the first Lockdown. We are hugely grateful for Dan's work, and the data is helping trustees to inform their ongoing strategic planning."

Mr Clarkson’s PhD is part of a project called Data Science of the Natural Environment (DSNE), which aims to apply statistics and data science techniques to environmental challenges. His work is based around applying extreme value statistical methods to ice sheet data, focusing on predicting ice melt in Greenland using satellite data.

“There isn't much direct crossover between my PhD work and the foodbank work, but my supervisors (Emma Eastoe and Amber Leeson) and the project lead (David Leslie) have all been really supportive of the foodbank work which has been really appreciated,” said Mr Clarkson.

Professor David Leslie, who leads the Data Science of the Natural Environment programme, said: “It’s great to see the expertise of students at Lancaster University benefitting the local community. Although Dan’s research is specialised, he of course has excellent general statistical skills, and we’re very proud of the work he is doing with the food bank.”

Mr Clarkson is on the steering committee for a new foodbank project, which aims to deliver food to recently discharged hospital patients without access to food. He has presented statistics work at a national food poverty conference (ENUF 2020), and is a member of the recently formed Lancaster District Food Poverty Alliance. He has also attended a virtual study group working on developing data science methods for FareShare. 

His voluntary work with the foodbank has also potentially influenced his thinking about his future career direction.

“The work has definitely made me consider the idea of jobs or research positions in the charity sector, especially those based around food poverty,” he said. “It would be amazing to be able to do meaningful work in this area in the future and to use the skills I've gained from my PhD to help people in need.”

More information about the Morecambe Bay Foodbank is available by visiting https://morecambebay.foodbank.org.uk/

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