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 Some of the thinking is outdated, and many of the links may have broken over time.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Story Telling with Big Numbers

He's questioned the data in the salsa v. ketchup debate. He's challenged the costs of cybercrime.

In Bringing Big Numbers Down to Size, the Numbers Guy takes on the concept of big numbers. How often do we use large numbers and statistics to make a point, and lose the audience because the numbers just don't make sense to them?

So we sometimes use analogies and descriptors and examples that describe dollar bills stretching to the moon or lines of people wrapping around the earth or similar kinds of things.

But there are some really innovative ways to portray large numbers. Check out how artist Chris Jordan depicts nine million children without health insurance.

And reader ChuckP adds that:

Most solutions to the difficulty conceptualizing numbers don’t work because they simply compound the problem. A stack of bills to the moon equals x dollars or the federal budget etc., etc.? Such images fall flat because it tries to solve the problem by introducing - more numbers!
Any solution probably requires two things - deeply held intuitive conceptions and a few SIMPLE numbers - but only if absolutely necessary.

My best attempt was an informational leaflet at describing how much more CEOs now make than the average Joe: “There are CEOs that make in one hour what takes many of us a whole year to earn.”

It’s very effective. People don’t forget it because it’s about one of the most important weekly events - the size of the paycheck for 40 hour’s work - and how it compares with the paychecks of other people we know. Imagine! - the example illustrates scale with no numbers at all!
It took me a long time to come up with the CEO example. It seems that every time I wanted to think about it, my mind automatically turned to the hopeless abstraction of numbers. I really had to work at getting into another frame of mind.

I know we've talked about the problems with using numbers to tell stories. And many times scale is even harder to show.

What are your best ways you've used in community indicators systems to help people understand large numbers?


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