Community Indicators for Your Community

Real, lasting community change is built around knowing where you are, where you want to be, and whether your efforts are making a difference. Indicators are a necessary ingredient for sustainable change. And the process of selecting community indicators -- who chooses, how they choose, what they choose -- is as important as the data you select.

This is an archive of thoughts I had about indicators and the community indicators movement. Some of the thinking is outdated, and many of the links may have broken over time.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Data and Storytelling: Part II

I'm still reeling from the implications of the story of Rokia mentioned in the previous post. Here's another warning about using statistics when telling a story.

This one's from The Numbers Guy who blogs at the Wall Street Journal Online. He provides the links back to Paul Slovic's article in March 2007 Foreign Policy called "Numbed by Numbers" -- the problem with statistics, he argues, is that they make the problem so immense that we feel helpless. We relate to a murder. We ignore genocide, because that's too overwhelming. Our feelings of helplessness and inability to comprehend or relate to to the scale of the problem de-motivates us toward action.

(The complete study by Paul Slovic is online at the site of the Society for Judgment and Decision Making.)

So what can we do, we who traffic in statistics? One reader on The Numbers Guy's blog suggests the problem is that the ask -- the request for assistance -- seems insignificant in the face of the huge problem. Giving $5 may help Rokia, but it doesn't begin to feed 11 million starving children. However, Slovic's article points out that in another study, people were willing to donate to buy equipment to help one child with a medical problem more than they would to help eight children with the problem -- even though the amount needed to buy the equipment was the same for one as it was for eight.

Here's a quote from an earlier study Slovic participated in:

We find that people also exhibit diminished sensitivity in valuing lifesaving interventions against a background of increasing numbers of lives at risk. We call this psychophysical numbing.

In other words, if I'm understanding this right, the worse the statistics, the less we care.

An e-mail response from a blog reader to the previous post said this:

My gut instinct, and I will think more about this one, is that the math is offputting for one of two reasons:

1. It's impersonalizing. When you take a step back from the people affected, maybe it makes the reader take a step back from himself, the idea that he might be personally responsible for change.

2. It's overwhelming and therefore paralyzing. I can help this one person is a lot more motivating than here are thousands of people, each as pathetic as this one person.

My county keeps an online database of kids needing foster care, and seeing the limited number plus the actual story and pic made it feel very personal and possible to me. I almost picked one up right there, even though I had already made the decision that I would only take foster kids after my kids were a bit older. Do you think that effect may be the same one at play here?

How can we take community indicators and turn them into stories that seem both "personal and possible"? That may be the real goal of storytelling with data.

1 comment:

  1. What if the story is not one of failure, but of triumph? Like, Mr. X donated Y dollars which purchased Z equipment which saved 73 children, and here is a personal glimpse at child #56 and how her life has been affected. You get the personalization-plus: here is a donor, just like you could be, and a specific donation. You also get the potential results: your Y dollars could also save 73 kids. And you get the story of one kid. AND, instead of being left with Sally's endless field of starving refugees, you're left with a good feeling about #56's salvation. Do you think expertly blended pleas could be part of the solution?