Magazine

Go Figure: How do you make statistics relevant to individuals?

Map

It's difficult to get personal with information about the whole of society but it is possible, Michael Blastland says in his regular column.

Can we be here and there at the same time? Forgive Go Figure's philosophical drift. But take a look at this map and then we'll get to why it matters

Begin at the bottom of the frame, with the woman standing at the corner of 3rd and 7th in Manhattan. From here we see a 3D perspective, the immediate view of the city almost as if standing there.

Now look up and the city blends into the view from above, map-like. We have a sense both of being here and being there, being in and being apart.

The image was created by the design consultancy, Berg, and inspired by the perspectives in Alfred Wainwright's books of Lakeland walks.

Jack Shulze of Berg says the map exploits today's higher levels of visual literacy from games, television and comics. Part of his purpose, he says, was "an exploration into way-finding devices." He writes about his influences here.

It's a great image. To me it's also a great metaphor for one of statistics' all-time headaches: how to make aggregate data that describes whole populations, their lives, chances and risks, feel real and relevant to everyone's sense of "me, here, now".

You'll recognise the problem. The news reports some fact about how many of the people who share your circumstances - your illness, your treatment, your job, your habits, your beliefs - will live long, die early, prosper and so on. Except that your life has been nothing like that.

And while we all know - of course we do - that there can be exceptions to a statistical generality, this does nothing to persuade many whose raw experience is that exception. I know this. I've tried. When abstract knowledge and the smell of the coal face collide, there's often no contest.

Last week I bumped into a guy who had recently travelled through Moscow. For friends at the time, there was only one question: "Are you all right?" They'd heard the news about the suicide bomber who killed dozens and injured hundreds more, and they knew that Britons were among the casualties.

Frenzy

Their perspective was immediate, personal and - for some perhaps - fear had them by the throat. Yet statistically, the question was absurd, if irresistible. Like asking someone who played the lottery: "So, did you win a fortune this week?"

It's analogous to the public and media frenzy over one life saved - perhaps - by a rare and hugely expensive treatment, while putting out of mind the many less visible others who will die because the money is no longer there for them, a kind of tunnel vision formed by the intensity of emotional connection. Pity can be, in its own way, also ruthless and inhumane.

Image caption Rice was used to visualise facts about life

One BBC correspondent whose work I admire says that part of his job is to look at change as if from a cloud, not to be unduly distracted by the weird and wonderfully compelling but isolated cases, but without appearing remote or indifferent.

And for any chance or risk, seeing ourselves or others both as individuals for whom the event would be everything - and as a statistical possibility for whom the event may be a grain of sand - is a dual mental perspective that leaves some people cold and hostile. It is why, for some, statistics don't work and never will.

So here's a challenge that I'm going to describe as a problem of design: how to feel for the one and see the many at the same time with the same intensity. How to be there and here. When, say, a chance is one in a million, how do we keep in mind the one and the million.

Here's one other visual attempt that I enjoyed, an exhibition a couple of years ago of big facts about modern life, where each person was represented by a grain of rice. It was called "Of all the people in all the world" and you can learn more here.

So, one huge pile of rice might show us how many of the word's population are obese. A cleverness of the idea was that all who visited the show were given something to induce a personal shock of scale: their own grain of rice.

Also worth a look are Chris Jordan's compelling sequences of images, here.

Click on the image to zoom - from there to here. Other examples, or maybe even a solution, gratefully received.