Joseph O’Leary, Full Fact’s Senior Researcher delivers the Westminster MasterClass Data: how to interpret and present it on 23 March 2017. He tells us about his work, and provides tips for understanding and presenting data.
Telling true from false
“I’m not surprised people are daunted,” says Joseph O’Leary, talking about how we can feel overwhelmed when faced by statistics and other numerical data, “I’m daunted all the time!”
As a professional fact checker, Joseph’s day-to-day work involves reading the news, watching what politicians are saying in parliament and what pressure groups are putting out on the internet. He then works out which claims are true and which are false. “Very little of it is black and white,” he explains. “There’s often a grey area, so our job is to go out and find the primary sources, work out what the best available version of the facts is, and communicate that as well as we can to our audience.”
Full Fact – the UK’s independent fact checking organisation – is a charity with two goals.
The first is to take specific, unsubstantiated claims out of circulation or, where possible, to prevent these kinds of claims being made in the first place. The second is to provide tools, advice and information so that people can check facts for themselves.
“As well as publishing articles on our website,” Joseph says, “we train and work with people who produce data and with journalists to help them communicate statistics better.”
The data MasterClass
Designed for people who need to be able to interpret, challenge and communicate data in their work, the MasterClass Joseph is leading will provide participants with an outline of three key processes that everyone should follow when they see any factual claim or statistic.
“Then,” says Joseph, “we’ll go through Full Fact’s data dos and don’ts and some of the good, the bad and the ugly things professionals do with numbers. You’ll have the opportunity to test your ‘nose for nonsense’, as we call it, and hone your skills in interpreting and presenting data.”
Joseph says that anyone can say what data means, or describe it statistically. “But the real flair comes in working out how to communicate it well. We’ll be exploring the best ways of doing that.” To whet your appetite, we asked Joseph for his three top tips for sharing numerical information.
3 tips for communicating data
1. Make a graph
“People respond to visual stimuli so well. A graph can explain a point that would take a thousand words. And some of the finest graphs are the simplest. For example, a single sloped line can be the best way of communicating your message. As long as you make it clear what that sloped line refers to, that could be the graph that explains it all.”
2. Find an analogy
“With complex statistics, it’s the easiest way to make the information feel more real.
Joseph’s favourite example is a way of describing the difference between the national debt and the deficit. “Think of it,” he says, “as a bath that’s running. The deficit is the rate at which the water’s flowing from the tap, and the debt is the water in the bath. If you turn the tap up, the deficit rises quicker, and the debt also rises quicker.”
3. Establish reference points for context
“For example, if I told you the UK economy is £1.8 trillion, what does that mean to you? To make real sense of that figure, you need to know how big the UK government spend is. Or how big the United States of America’s economy is. Or how that compares to what the world produces. What’s our share of that pie?
Numbers have very little meaning without context.”
Overall, Joseph says, “give people the basis for understanding, make your information relevant to their real-world experience, and don’t force them to read text.”
For many people, some of the most significant and complex data we need to present, interpret and/or challenge in our professional lives comes in the form of financial information like corporate accounts, financial projections, forecasts and budgets.
Making sense of complex financial information
Joseph offers three pieces of advice
1. Ask an expert
“Because it’s a specialist area, the first piece of advice has to be don’t do it yourself. Ask an expert. As you would with medical data, for instance. You wouldn’t go vigilante on medical data and expect to understand it. You need to have expert help.”
2. Ask the right questions
“Even if there’s so much data you can’t handle it, you need to ask the right questions. For instance: has it been audited? Who’s audited it? What are the auditing processes?
When it comes down to the more specific questions, don’t accept financial data that’s related to percentage changes. Ask for raw, actual numbers, not derived statistics. Ask for the primary source. And ask for figures in real terms as well. If figures are presented over a time series, you need to have inflation or a deflator applied to them. Ask about the basis on which figures are presented. Is it on the actual out turns for each year? Are they being weighted by some other measure that you don’t know about?”
3. Look for anomalies
“It’s not that hard to find anomalies. You can do it visually, or do a bit of data sorting in a spreadsheet, a few consistency checks. Look for values that don’t quite fit with the overall narrative. Making a chart can help. And then ask about any anomalies you find. Is there a real world reason for them? A data entry error? A change in the way something has been measured, weighted or calculated?
There are statistical ways of determining what an anomaly is. But I’d always start with a visual check because, I trust my eyes sometimes more than I trust my formulas!”
We’re delighted that the MasterClass will be chaired by Jean Seaton, Professor of Media History at the University of Westminster, the BBC’s Official Historian and one of Full Fact’s trustees.
Joseph O’Leary is Full Fact’s lead on data and the presentation of statistics. He produced Full Fact’s internal graphs style guide and leads the organisation’s consulting work in this field which has included controlling the production of all graphs for Sky News’s 2014 party conference coverage. He represents Full Fact at events and in the media, including briefing the Jeremy Vine show.
Watch Joseph describing what to expect in his MasterClass
… and giving his top tips for communicating statistical info