Guardian lead information architect Martin Belam has got his excellent Currybet blog back up and running after a short break. He has a post up today about April’s London IA event, featuring writer and statistician Michael Blastland.
Martin and I saw Michael speak at a Media Standards Trust event in March, where he spoke about the potential pitfalls in reporting crime statistics. At the London IA event he gave a talk entitled “designing for doubt”, continuing to argue that journalists, and politicans, make a very poor job of working with numbers.
He illustrated his talk with several case studies, showing how easy it was to manipulate numbers. One was the impact of an education programme on the rate of teenage pregnancies in the Orkney Islands. A selective graph seemed to show dramatic results, with the incidence of youth pregnancy slashed. A more detailed look at the numbers revealed the fundamental truth of Michael Blastland’s simple but common sense message:
“Numbers go up and down. And sometimes stay the same.”
Women are not, he pointed out, queuing up on the Orkneys to get pregnant at a nicely regular rate to please statisticians. With a low sample size there are always likely to be wide fluctuations in the numbers of pregnant teenagers from year to year.
I blogged on another session at the MST event, about crowdsourcing: From alpha users to a man in Angola: Adventures in crowdsourcing and journalism