The pandemic put the spotlight on data. 2020 was the year that the nation watched the peaks and troughs on Professor Chris Whitty’s graphs with bated breath. Even now, many of us are compulsively following the daily updates on Covid-19 cases and vaccines as they hold the key to the nation unlocking (or not) on 21 June.
But it’s not just the Covid context which is filling our minds and the media with numbers. Globally the amount of data is growing. IDC's Global DataSphere states that the amount of data created over the next three years will be more than the data created over all of the past 30.
So we are surrounded by numbers and in some cases drowning. As communicators how should we use and make sense of this sea of facts, figures and statistics?
Data can tell a good story simply based on its power to illuminate trends and overturn assumptions. I was surprised last month, for example, to learn that despite the current relief on Stamp Duty Land Tax for residential properties under £500,000, the abnormally high level of sales of more expensive homes actually pushed up duty receipts in the first three months of 2021.
As ever context is king and we must not be blinded by numbers alone. Understanding the nuance of what figures do and don’t include and how data has been gathered is critical. How many tabloid headlines proclaim the health benefits of some new wonder food based on small samples or inconclusive findings?
At the more dramatic and potentially life-threatening end of the scale, we saw the challenge the government faced earlier this year to contextualise and explain the risk of blood clotting posed by coronavirus vaccines compared to contracting Covid itself. In these situations, the ability to explain numbers clearly and in a way that audiences can understand quickly is vital.
We have to use data carefully and interrogate it as we would any other kind of evidence. As the wealth of information grows and the potential for obfuscation or deliberate misrepresentation becomes ever greater in our post-truth world, we are all going to have to become more data literate in both our personal and professional lives.
Steph Byrne is an account director at Camargue