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Speaking the language of data is now more important than ever

Fundamentally, the purpose of journalism is (or is supposed to be) to provide the public with the information they need to make the best possible decision about their lives, their communities, their societies and their governments.

The main danger we have in the modern world is that news has now become a form of entertainment and the COVID-19 situation has become pretty much the only topic up for discussion around our virtual water coolers. Sadly, for some media outlets (particularly those on social media), this has resulted in widespread opportunism and sensationalism as literally THOUSANDS of so-called news sites slug it out for clicks and likes, and shock value takes precedence over facts.

Unfortunately, we don’t always help ourselves as humans. We love a good story and so it becomes that the media, not the source, ascends to become the default ‘authority of truth’ between the data and the story and, thus, influences the actions we take. In other words, we’re not comfortable or willing to interpret the data ourselves and ask questions. The main (but not only) cause of this is a fundamental lack of data literacy.

In both our business and personal lives, low data literacy ultimately means we make bad decisions as we don’t fully understand the facts, or at least they have not been adequately explained. Sound familiar?

The fact remains that only 17% of UK workers can be classed as data literate, according to a recent PWC Data Literacy Survey. In other words, less than one in five people are comfortable reading, working with, analysing and arguing with data. Thankfully, the tide is slowly starting to turn, but not fast enough.A gap in understanding still exists, which allows media outlets to interpret data and present it in a way they see fit.

Think about it this way. If you’re a parent, you’ve probably read a bedtime story to your children. You do this because your children, at a very young age, have a skills gap, which is reading. They either can’t read or are just learning, so you become the ‘chief storyteller’ by interpreting the words and telling them the story. As they get slightly older, they become curious and they ask their own questions because they are learning. Before you know it, they get to a point where you can’t read them a single paragraph without them asking, “why is Mr Bunny sad, mummy?” (questioning) and then “don’t be silly, daddy, a hippopotamus can’t fly!” – they are arguing.

Before you know it, they’re coming home from primary school reading you their own stories that they have written themselves. They have developed their language to an extent that they are now comfortable creating their own stories.

This is exactly the same pattern adults experience when working with data or, more appropriately, the language of data. As we’re still in the stage of developing the language of data, we’re taking lots of news stories at face value without being curious, without asking ourselves questions and without arguing – simply because four out of five people don’t know how to do it yet!

So how do we meet this challenge head on? It’s simpler than you think - and you don’t need to be a data scientist to do it!

  1. Start by being curious. When you read an article or see some data, find out where it’s from. Cross-reference it with another source. Only when you are sure of it’s validity do you spend time thinking about and perhaps sharing it.
  2. Ditch the news sites and outlets that you know to be sensationalist or false. I saw a news article the other day about the army being deployed around the M25. The accompanying picture in the article was of a Russian tank – ditched.
  3. Cleanse your social media timelines. Get rid of fake news. This will hurt, but I promise you it’s worth it. Your Facebook/Twitter feed will be game-changing.  
  4. Try your own. There is plenty of data out there and some simple tools to do it. Qlik Sense and Power BI are particularly good for beginners wanting to skill up. You don’t need to be a data scientist to do this, you just need a curious mindset. There are so many charts and visuals out there it’s mind-boggling, so I decided to build my own using Qlik Sense and data from a trusted source.

Stu’s Qlik Sense app

Finally, the most important thing you can do for the future is invest some time in becoming more data literate. Start by visiting trusted sites such as The Data Literacy Project and change the way you read and think about data. I guarantee this will help you both in your business and personal lives.

If you need any advice on how to work better with data, I’d be delighted to speak with you. Hit me up on Twitter (@QlikStu) or LinkedIn.

Stay safe everyone, and be curious…