Posts Tagged 'World peace'

The dangers of data journalism

The World Bank: “Our mission is to fight poverty with passion and professionalism for lasting results” it says. It also provides shelter from the rain for that little panda.

My previous post on data journalism might have conveyed the impression that I think it will cure all the problems of the press-release-rewriting style of journalism that readers of the Metro, for example, experience. Following several emails, I think I need to clarify.

I praised BBC Radio’s More or Less, but Matt Berkley emailed to criticise the programme’s feature on the World Bank’s global poverty stats, which he thinks “misleads in several important aspects”. Matt’s comment interested me (not least because I have, in another life, done some research on global poverty statistics), so I had another look. Feel free to read his complaint to the BBC and compare it to the published story, or the podcast.

Data doesn’t remove the room for debate, it just shifts the debate on to different territory. A data journalist will still make value judgements – but those should, where possible, be informed by statistical analysis, not an appeal to authority.

Now, attempting to report world poverty in a newspaper article sets the bar extremely high: even the meaning of the word “poverty” is a value judgement.

We can do better than “world poverty is decreasing because the World Bank says it is”, which is a simple appeal to authority: those guys are the experts, so they must be correct.

Given the world Bank report, journalists may ask:

  • Why we pick a certain income level to indicate poverty? Even if we accept that far fewer people now live on $1.25 or less, there are almost as many people surviving on $2 or less as there were before. The poverty line may be defined as not starving, or not having some defined “basic needs” met, or not being among the poorest 20 per cent in your country. These are all different numbers, and all used by economists. Note: you can’t eradicate the last type of poverty, in case you were wondering.
  • Whether we correct an arbitrary poverty line for the relative price of the things that poor people buy in different countries (also, how do we decide what those things are? The poor in different countries eat different food, and have different habits, which may make some parts of the world seem richer, when the quality of life is no better).
  • Do we use a measure of earned income, or of what those people can eat or trade? The urban poor may have a bit more cash than the rural poor, but don’t have domestic animals, for example, so they might spend more but eat less. This is very difficult to measure.
  • Most seriously, do the statistics use data to manipulate the headline? If you have done the rest of the analysis, this becomes clearer. Governments (or World Banks) are sometimes accused of picking a threshold, or a measurement process, to suit a carefully-chosen good news agenda.

An example of the final point: the government of Cynicalia wants to claim that it has abolished poverty, with the poverty line defined as $1.25 a day (as the World Bank defines it). There are a million working class Cynicalians earning on average $1 a day, and a million middle class Cynicalians earning on average $3 a day, and the president and his family earn $100,000 a day. It might squeeze the middle so that there are two million people earning $2 a day, while not redistributing the president’s wealth at all which is hidden in Switzerland. The government can now send a press release claiming that no one is poor, and that more than half the country is as well off, or better off, than before the reform.

A journalist can check the numbers of poor people at different poverty lines (maybe even using different measurements of income), investigate how the poverty line is calculated, or examine the effect of different redistribution policies. The figures exist, though working out how they were calculated can be a headache. All this takes time and some expertise, which is a problem.

Or the newspaper can just give up, and tell the journalist to repeat the government’s claim that Poverty is History. In which case that journalist is a loyal Cynic.

The article that Matt criticises covers many of the assumptions on poverty lines in some detail, and highlights their shortcomings. He feels the BBC should have done better.

I don’t agree with most of Matt’s complaint, for two editorial reasons. The first is that, where assumptions are made, I think they are clearly and accurately spelt out. The second is that this feature does not attempt to support a conclusion, merely to investigate how we calculate it (I also disagree with his analysis for a couple of economic reasons, but this is not the forum to air that discussion).

Data journalism is becoming trendy. I wish I’d written about Nate Silver in 2008, before I looked like a bandwagon jumper. But here’s the point: statistics do not resolve all arguments. A data journalist needs to understand how the data was collected, how it is presented, and whether the conclusions are justified by the data. The journalist also needs to resist overclaiming, based on a the emotional appeal of what the data seems to say.

I can show you plenty of examples of bad data journalism, where a little understanding can be as bad as none at all: I’ll leave it to you to ask.

Exclusive: Obama campaign links to South Ribble’s secret Marxists

Some Marxists eat food like this

I used to moan that there was too little debate about politics in the UK. Policy discussion prominently involved making up slogans and white male politicians boasted about the black people they met. I wanted more robust debate.

Be careful what you wish for. In the US, a country that I admire for its logical approach to spelling, bizarre yet entertaining sports and excellent comedy and drama that often make British equivalents seem like a school play, political hell now regularly breaks loose, and often it’s a bit barmy. Lately the press has decided to debate the meaning of the word Forward, because that’s the Obama campaign slogan.

It’s definitely a more useful arrangement of seven letters than the unspoofable Australian political slogan We are Us, which just makes no sense at all. The question that the hard-of-thinking political class has been asking: does using the word prove that he’s secretly a communist?

I don’t want to prejudge the issue, other than saying that the Marxism claim is the sort of thing that a smelly drunk guy at a bus stop starts telling you about while people give you furtive sympathetic looks. But read the papers, and they’re sounding more like the smelly guy. The Washington Times is just one of the newspapers which pointed out that the radical left often calls its publications “Forward” too. The journalists who wrote the story even went as far as looking these newspapers up on Wikipedia.

(Note to my American journalist peers: we all occasionally fill up 300 words by cutting and pasting from Wikipedia – but if you admit that you’re doing it, you ruin things for the rest of us. Still, it saved me a job finding the links for you.)

Even a stopped clock is correct twice a day, and so the lazy political hacks of the Washington Times have a small point. Historically, a lot of socialist papers have been called Forward. As a name it certainly has the edge over Sideways, Backwards and The Kingston Whig-Standard.

To help my North American readers decide on Forwardgate, I checked out some of the newspapers called Forward that attempt to brainwash Brits.

In Gateshead, Moving Forward newspaper suspiciously offers “free courses” organised by the Gateshead Housing Company.  It promises you will learn “new” skills and meet “new” people.

Communistic American attendees will be pleased to know that there are interpreters available on these courses, as the Geordie accent can be challenging:

If anyone is innocently thinking of sending their children from the US to Gateshead to take one of these courses, I need only remind you of Obama’s compulsory re-education camps that you were warned about in 2009. Could it be that these imaginary camps have simply relocated to the North-East of England? Well, no, but I’ve never started a conspiracy theory before, so you might want to run with this one for me.

The US has a long tradition of political radicals who prefer to live outside the narrow confines of civilisation in places where the norms of polite society and rule of law don’t apply. The UK equivalent of these places is Preston. It is no surprise to find that local South Ribble Borough Council calls its newspaper Forward as well.

You won’t be surprised to hear that the commies have made this publication carbon neutral, when they could just as easily have published one that used non-socialist carbon stuff instead. Provocative.

“Who will win South Ribble’s Search for a Star Contest?” it asks, innocently. I suggest it wants one of its fellow travellers to inform on that person so that the South Ribble Politburo can authorise its secret police to intern him or her without charge as a warning to those who seek to exercise the cherished capitalist freedom to win talent competitions. Is it a coincidence that previous South Ribble Search for a Star Winners are almost always never heard of again? I think not.

Finally, the latest edition of Forward from Birmingham City Council hides its crypto-communist credentials inside articles titled: State-of-the-art new public pool makes a splash and Fun for all at Big Jubilee Weekend, but it doesn’t fool me.

My warning is especially relevant for America’s easily-fooled liberal East coast metropolitans: this disgraceful radical propaganda sheet boasts that:

Influential critics at the New York Times newspaper have placed Birmingham at number 19 in its ‘Places To Go In 2012’ shortlist thanks to the city’s growing reputation for world-class cuisine.

Don’t fall for it, New Yorkers! If you visit one of the area’s interesting, inexpensive and welcoming Indian restaurants there will probably some mind altering Marxist drug in your chicken Balti. How do I know? Well, if the critics from the NYT think there are only 18 better places to visit than Birmingham, someone’s definitely been taking something.

Week 39: sell joy, buy gloom

Seeing as the Western economies are all going to hell in a handcart by the end of 2011, I thought I’d take a look and see how much residual optimism is left.

To do this, I constructed the TN Joy Index, by taking the numbers of articles that mention the word “joy”, and dividing them by the number that mentioned the word “gloom”. In this case, I’m showing the results from news sources in the US (omitting sport, where both emotions are cheapened commodities, and obituaries, which might skew the data). I figured the US is the bellwether economy for joy. It is still the world’s largest manufacturer and exporter of optimism, though not all of it is of the highest quality these days. for example, only the US could have produced the following three books, demonstrating how competitive the market in misplaced optimism used to be:

They'll be correct, just not yet

For would-be students of the TN Joy Index, I present three results. The first is that newspapers are still, on balance, happy places. Not one of my results contained a month where there were more articles mentioning gloom than joy. I wouldn’t go so far as to recommend a newspaper to cheer yourself up at the moment, unless your personal Joy Index is low indeed. If that is the case, buy the official Talk Normal book instead. That’ll make at least one of us happy.

The second result is that, despite a lack of concrete reasons to be cheerful, the US has been steadily recovering the joy it abruptly lost in 2007 and 2008. In 2011 joy has been up to almost pre-crash levels of exuberance. I suspect that joy is more in evidence among high earners. Still, if you’re unemployed or in foreclosure, look at this and you might be encouraged:

Not for long though. The Weekly TN Joy Index is plunging like an overworked plumber. In week 32*, beginning 8 August, we reached historically low levels of joyfulness, with only 1.62 joys for every gloom. For comparison: in the week that Lehman Brothers collapsed in the US, the index was at 1.97. In the week after 9/11, it was at 2.24.

The short-term market for optimism seems to have collapsed, but I refuse to be downhearted. I may write a book called “Joy at 100,000!!!” predicting a time when gloom is all but forgotten and a sub-2 index seems unthinkable. It’s about as likely to happen in the near future as the Dow at 40,000 – but, when the market turns, there will be money in unrealistic optimism once again. I want my cut.

* TN TruFact: Since 15 June 1988, there has been an International Standard for week numbering, to give management consultants something to report on when they visit wall chart manufacturers. It is defined in ISO-8601 and, according to Epoch Converter, “The first week of the year is the week that contains that year’s first Thursday.” If that doesn’t restore your faith in the ability of developed economies to create jobs out of thin air, nothing will.

What the government would like to say about economic recovery

Selfridges opened its Christmas shop last week, specifically to irritate people like me. I prefer my new bag. It’s £4.99 at Modern Toss.

The doctor is in

Welcome back to work everybody. Except for those of you who work in call centres, for whom Christmas is just a chance to meet a new set of people asking idiot questions; and Scots, who put their feet up for one more day than the rest of us.

Sorry for the absence of talknormalising in the gifting season: there’s been a lot going on which, among other things, forced me to delay the second annual Plattie awards. Specifically, I’ve been finishing the Talk Normal book, which will be out later this year. It’s a sort of remix of the greatest hits plus lots of all-new tracks that you will never be able to read online. Let’s see if the strategy works. It did great in the music business.

If that doesn’t sound compelling enough, The Finch (my publisher) promises me there will be a special deal on the book for friends of Talk Normal. I’ve got no idea how it will work, but he means you, free subscribers.

While you wait for the first post of 2011, I’d just like to point out that the British government has declared an end to the War On Motorists this week. You might consider that the government is involved in a couple of more important wars that it might have put a stop to first. But that would imply that we were talking about actual change, rather than grabbing a cheap headline, so I’ll merely point out  that Talk Normal’s opinion of this particular war is already on the record.

The War On Hyberbole

Forget the death, maiming, destruction and ruinous expense: war can also be an opportunity to photograph your dog

We’re at war. I’m sure you noticed.

There are the usual military wars but, for people who like to call talk radio stations at 4am or visit their golf club bar to complain, the real wars are closer to home.

For example, if you’re the type of person who, before forming an opinion, wonders “What would Jeremy Clarkson think?”, you will have noticed that there is a War on Motorists going on. Don’t worry, car fans. I live two minutes from the A12, and I can tell you that you’ve already won this one. My advice to militant motorists: rather than whining about speed cameras and fuel tax and congestion charges and cycle lanes and car parking charges in the letters pages of local newspapers, open up a second front. Tarmac over the Eurostar line and invade France. Just as long as you promise not to come back.

The Mail tells us that the government is busy recruiting ex-ministers for a War on Dole Cheats. I approve of less thieving, but Labour ex-ministers of all people should know that it’s easier to start a war than to win one. Note also that Dole Cheats have been abusing the well-intentioned Tanks for the Homeless scheme for so long that they’re armed and ready to fight for what isn’t actually theirs. Well, they would be, but The Jeremy Kyle Show is on in half an hour, and after that the chippy’s open.

A quick scan through today’s news also shows that there are wars of varying believability being waged on our behalf on antibioticscybercrime, gold, de-legitimization, and media center software. It’s not an exaggeration, because they are exactly like real wars! If someone has to die so that media center software can be defeated, one day our kids will thank us.

Also in the news: Lance Armstrong has declared war on the French hotel industry. Either that or he complained about some French hotels; but that doesn’t sound quite as exciting when you’re writing a headline.

Among blogger armchair generals you’re never more than a couple of posts away from a fictitious War on Something. For example, over at loopy United Liberty, the dastardly US Government is waging a war on dogs, in which we must take sides:

A world where drugs are widely available legally would be supremely preferable to a world in which I have to fear that a SWAT team will break down my door and kill my pets

it concludes. I’m curious to see half a dozen sausage dogs in camouflage jackets trying to load a mortar, but I can’t say I’m rooting for either side, based on this article.

You could say – wait for it – that I don’t have a dog in this fight.

With everyone – and now their pets – currently conscripted in some media-invented war or other, our armed forces are going to be overstretched. I have a way to cut the workload: we can beat the internet’s lazy writers at their own game by declaring a War On Hyberbole.

There may be a million-strong Blogger Army against us, doubtlessly even now claiming they would die typing for the right to exaggerate, but I’ve got a plan to win that can’t fail.

1. We wait for one of the Blogger Army to announce that he or she is the General.

2. Ten comments later the rest of them will be far too busy complaining that this is exactly what Hitler would have done to fight against us*.

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* Ironically, on this occasion they would be correct.

You read the blog, soon buy the book

The first Ronald McDonald. Note that Mr McDonald is now the company's chief happiness officer, which makes me want to shove his head down a toilet even more.

To quote John Oliver from The Bugle podcast: “We are back! Is it better than ever? No. It was happening, then it stopped for a little bit, now it’s happening again.”

As Talk Normal starts the Autumn term, I have announcements.

News part one: monetization of assets

There’s going to be a Talk Normal book. That’s right! In a while you’ll be able to read the best of Talk Normal by paying money for it, rather than getting it for free!

But there will be lots of new material too. Before I write it, I have a question:

News part two: crowdsourcing

What would you want to see in the book of Talk Normal?

Imagine it’s the sort of stuff you get only on prescription. Suggest something in the comments, or email me if you are shy. There’s a limited edition Talk Normal mug for any that I use in the book.

News part three: don’t worry, I’m in control

People who should know better put me in charge of the Market Research Society‘s Social Media Conference on 23 September. Are they mad? I had to tell them that I might not make the planning meeting because I’ll be on the way back from Bestival. They would never have had this problem had they booked Brian Conley.

The keynote’s being given by Andrew Keen, who wrote Cult of the Amateur: How the Internet is killing our culture. On the face of it, it’s like putting on a Vegetarian Society conference and asking Ronald McDonald to keynote. I’m hoping it kicks off a bit, then at least I won’t have to do the: “No questions? Ha ha well it must have been an excellent presentation ha ha” covering thing after he finishes his speech.

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