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Numbers of the year 2014

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What were the most significant, eye-catching or startling numbers of 2014? Several experts name their favourites, and explain why.

Helen Joyce

It means two things to me as a former Brazil correspondent - both of them sad.

One of them is the score when Germany beat Brazil in July, in the semi-final of the World Cup. Germany got seven goals and Brazil went out on a humiliating one goal.

It's also, just as sadly, the ratio at the moment of inflation in Brazil to growth.

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You may remember that Brazil was one of the Bric economies, the large, emerging markets that were growing fast and going to transform the world's economy (Brazil, Russia, India, China). That was a few years ago. Now we have a country that is perilously close to stagflation. Its inflation is close to 7% and it's growing at even less than 1%.

For me this ratio sums up two ways in which Brazil has disappointed in the last few years since its arrival on the world stage. I just hope that this country that I still believe has huge, huge potential and for which I'm rooting can turn this around and make it 1:7 in the future.

Helen Joyce is editor of The Economist's international section

Sir David Spiegelhalter

This is the amount that the UK's Office for National Statistics (ONS) estimated that prostitution contributed to the economy in 2012, following a decision by the EU that prostitution and illegal drugs should be counted as part of a country's Gross Domestic Product.

The ONS estimates that:

  • about 61,000 people work in prostitution in the UK
  • the average cost per visit is about £67
  • each prostitute sees about 23 clients per week, working 52 weeks a year - in total about 1,200

Multiply those figures up and you get £5.7bn (which is $8.9bn, or 7.3bn euros).

This number has been questioned by people close to the profession. They say it is far too high and I agree with them.

The estimate of 61,000 people working in prostitution probably isn't too bad, although it's hard to be sure. The trade is changing so rapidly and the number of independents now - with the rise of the internet - has grown enormously. You can go on to one website and see 30,000 people operating independently.

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The average cost of £67 doesn't seem unrealistic either. It could be slightly on the low side but as a profession there's a huge amount of variation between streetwalkers and high-class escorts.

But the crucial thing is the assumption that each person working is seeing 1,200 clients a year. This seems very high indeed.

We can do a few little reality checks on this. It would mean, for example, that everybody working in prostitution was actually turning over £100,000 a year and that doesn't seem plausible (having spoken to people who know about these things).

It would also mean that there are 75 million visits to prostitutes every year in the UK - about 1.5 million a week. That doesn't seem plausible either.

The National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (NATSAL) - says that roughly 4% of men aged between 18-65 report paying for sex in the last five years, and over the last year it's probably about half a million people. To get to 1.5 million visits per week each would have to be paying for sex three times per week. That doesn't reflect behaviour by any measure.

So my feeling is that £5.7bn is too high. The ONS is taking a look at it again and I predict it will come down substantially.

More or Less presenter Tim Harford comments: The estimate of the size of the prostitution industry isn't some arcane statistical issue. It matters because it boosted the estimate of the UK's gross national income. That in turn boosted the size of the bill that the European Union sent the UK government in October. Headlines mentioned £1.7bn - of that perhaps £100m is due to the ONS trying to count the value of the sex and the drugs traded in the British economy.

David Spiegelhalter is Winton Professor of the Public Understanding of Risk at Cambridge University

Carlos Vilalta

This is a number we got the first time we conducted a census of elementary education in Mexico at the beginning of 2014 - and it represents the number of teachers who were being paid a salary, but were unknown by schools and pupils.

Before the census was carried out The National Institute of Statistics contacted the Ministry of Education and one of things they received was the payroll, which lists teachers who receive a pay cheque in each of the schools.

The National Institute of Statistics went through the list systematically and there were 39,222 of these unknown teachers - nobody knew who they were.

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It is a lot of people, though as a proportion of all teachers it's just 1.5%.

Theoretically, in a rational world, the Minister for Education would have adjusted the payroll but we don't know if that happened.

Carlos Vilalta is visiting fellow at the Centre for US-Mexican Studies at the University of California in San Diego

Evan Davis

This year has been a very interesting one in public opinion terms. The public have been restive in the UK and in a lot of other countries. They've been discontented, they've been turning to populist parties and so I have been very interested by a pretty big opinion poll - 32,000 people, 20 different countries - carried out by Ipsos. It's called their Global Trends survey.

One third is roughly the proportion of people who think the world is going well. A third of the global respondents basically think today's youth will have a better life than their parents had. But here's the interesting bit - in half the countries it was above a third and in half the countries it was below a third. What you get is a real sense of what is happening in the world.

These are the countries that were above average - that thought the world was getting better: China, India, Brazil, Turkey, Russia, South Africa.

South Korea and Japan were at average.

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And then when you go to the ones that were below average, see if you can spot the pattern: Australia, Italy, Germany, Canada, Britain, Sweden, the US, Spain, Belgium, France. (There are one or two exceptions that I left out there.)

I think it tells you why in the richer countries you're seeing populist parties coming out and saying, "Hang on a minute, what's going on here? We don't like what's changing around us." There's a deep-rooted sense of discontent and detachment from global change.

But in the emerging world very clearly people are thinking, "Hey, this is actually beginning to benefit us and our children."

It's just a nice symbol really of where the world is at the moment, that you do have a passing of economic power from an old world to a new world and what you're witnessing in 2014 is some of the political and global ructions of that shift.

Evan Davis is a presenter of Newsnight on BBC2

Bill Edgar

My number for 2014, or rather my height for 2014, is 6 foot 3 ½ inches (191.8cm), which is the average height of a Premier League goalkeeper at the moment.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionEverton goalkeeper Tim Howard is 191cm

Forty years ago, when the average height of a top flight goalkeeper was only 6 foot 0 inches (182.9cm) - a little under in fact. Football can only hope that this increase in height doesn't continue, because it would cause severe problems. The average goalkeeper by the end of this century would be 6 foot 10 inches (208.3cm) tall and by the year 2251 the average keeper would be 8 foot 0 inches (243.8cm) tall and also the height of the crossbar so they'd be at risk of bumping their head on it.

Bill Edgar is a football journalist for The Times

Hannah Fry

This is the basic reproduction number for Ebola in Sierra Leone - it's the average number of people one person with Ebola will infect before they die or recover. If a reproduction number is bigger than one, that means that the more people who get a particular disease the more people will be infected and so on and so on and it will spread through the population as an epidemic.

If you have a reproduction number that is less than one, then the disease will eventually die away.

It's just in Sierra Leone that the number is 2.53. In other countries there's a range between 1.5 and 2.7, but these numbers are all above one. That's why we've got an epidemic on our hands.

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Compare that to measles. Before people were routinely vaccinated the reproduction number for measles was about 17, which is huge in comparison to Ebola. But the thing that's really terrifying about Ebola is that so many people who have it will die, and also that bodies remain infectious after death.

People often talk about "bending the curve". What they mean by that is that there is a mathematical model that you can use to look at the way that the disease spreads, and that can help you design your strategies to deal with it.

By bending the curve you're trying to flatten off the reproduction curve and you can do that by just isolating people who have Ebola and stopping them from infecting other people. It turns out that you only need to stop about half of the new infected cases to get the basic reproduction number down to under one. They have done that successfully in Nigeria.

Hannah Fry is a researcher of complexity theory at University College London

Julian Rademeyer

This is the number of Christians supposedly murdered by Boko Haram in a massacre earlier this year.

The claim arose because of an image that began doing the rounds on social media networks in Nigeria and spread like wildfire. It showed dozens of charred corpses in the baking heat, and soldiers and medics with masks and across the image was a caption: "Boko Haram burns 375 Christians". It was a truly horrific image and we set about trying to check the facts.

Using Google image search and a couple of basic image comparison websites we discovered that in fact the image wasn't of a massacre and that it had actually been taken four years ago, in July 2010, 2,000km away from Nigeria in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

What had happened was that a fuel tanker had overturned, bystanders had rushed to collect fuel leaking out of the tanker, and then the fuel had ignited. Many people had gathered there to watch a World Cup soccer game.

We set about comparing images, finding images of that particular catastrophe and comparing the details: there was a distinctive roof in the background, there were the uniforms of the soldiers and the Red Cross officials. We discovered that the image had been used in a number of other instances, including once to represent the massacre of 500 Christians in Nigeria, and on another occasion to show the slaughter of Muslims by Buddhist monks.

It's part of a growing problem where you have images stripped of context and used for propaganda purposes. We've looked at a number of claims like that through the year. One other example showed what was claimed to be a policeman stoning a gay man to death in Uganda. (Uganda has extremely homophobic policies in place.) That image spread like wildfire but it had actually been taken by an Associated Press photographer in the Central African Republic, where soldiers had killed someone in the road.

Julian Rademeyer is editor of Africa Check

These and other numbers will feature on the next edition of More or Less, on BBC Radio 4 at 16:30 GMT on Friday 2 January, repeated at 20:00 GMT on Sunday 4 January.

Some numbers of the year have already been discussed on the World Service edition of the programme.

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