December 2, 2020 – 1:46am
Editor’s note: A version of this article originally appeared in Information Age.
This year’s UN World Statistics Day theme of “connecting the world with data we can trust” feels particularly timely. The global pandemic has put data at the heart of how the public is informed and persuaded to change behaviors. There has been a huge learning curve for the general public and for governments, with many new public-health statistical systems being built from scratch in country after country, globally.
Even though data has become more influential in our lives, people’s level of confidence in using and asking questions of data hasn’t increased. Simply being presented with statistical charts of the pandemic hasn’t made us all more data literate.
If the handling and presenting of data during the pandemic has shown us anything, it’s that public citizens, politicians, and the media all need to commit to knowing and interrogating data. This will be even more relevant as the second COVID-19 infection wave affects our economies and we look for signs in the data that the pandemic may be receding.
In the spirit of World Statistics Day, what more can governments be doing to improve how they use and present data to the public? Should citizens themselves be responsible for making sure they understand data being presented to them, so they can form objective opinions?
What is data without trust?
Those in positions of responsibility are facing major challenges when it comes to trusted data use—as the current pandemic shows how important data is for society, politics, and companies. Transparency is vital.
This situation also shows that the understanding of data, and related analyses, is not obvious. Do consumers of the insights know where the data comes from, or how it was modeled? Is it clear where there is uncertainty in the underlying data? Is the source data available for others to interrogate?
Think back to the “flatten the curve” charts that taught us so much at the start of this pandemic. The images presented two possible outcomes, based on different levels of lockdowns. This type of chart was easy to understand, and they were accompanied by detailed data stories explaining how they worked.
By not overcomplicating the narrative, local politicians and media outlets were able to clearly communicate their key messages to the public and, through that clarity and openness, were able to establish a level of trust. As we all came to terms with the new disease, the data—having been presented so well—helped people change their behaviors.
Data is at the crux of the decision-making process
Over time, as pandemic fatigue has set in, and the reality that science and statistics are uncertain, people have become less trusting of the data presented to them. First off, an inherent problem is that people believe data contains more “truths” about what has happened. This is a fallacy. For a start, all data is messy—even in robust systems. Furthermore, charts are not neutral. Imagine a chart showing an “average number of COVID-19 cases”; I could choose the mean, median, or mode. Or I could choose a 7- or 14-day moving average, with each chart telling a different story.
We also read charts as we read an opinion piece in the pages of a newspaper: our own biases affect how we interpret the data. Just like the audience’s own biases, their level of data literacy also impacts the interpretation. All of this is mitigated if data sources are open, skills are always being developed, and a culture of conversation is encouraged.
Data literacy should be a core competency
Even before the pandemic, it was clear that national data literacy levels should be raised significantly. But this year, COVID-19 has highlighted the ever-present challenge of data literacy both within the wider population, and at the top levels of government and policy-making.
At its most basic level, data literacy is the ability to explore, understand, and communicate with data. But in order for a data-led strategy and approach to work effectively on a large scale, more effort needs to be put into considering how to build a Data Culture. Specifically, one that encourages answers and interrogations to a series of fruitful questions about data in society and business.
A significant part of the challenge facing government and businesses is to shatter the inscrutability around data, and instill data literacy as a core competency across a far broader cross-section of the workforce. I challenge the government and businesses to do better at making data literacy, and the skills required, both accessible and a priority. By doing this, we will then begin to build a society that is more inclusive, trustworthy, and collaborative with data—ultimately connecting the world through data that we can trust.