An interview with ‘Our World in Data’

This is my interview with ‘Our World in Data’. A Portuguese version of it can be found at Terraço Econômico.

First, I’d like to congratulate the whole team for being accepted by Y Combinator. I figure it took a lot of hard work, but it’s surely paying off. Now, regarding the project itself, how does ‘Our World in Data’ want to impact real people? I mean, how people usually perceive the world.

Thank you. It was really an honour to be accepted by Y Combinator as one of only 3 non-profits among the latest 200 company batch. The programme was a lot of hard work for the team; we were university academics entering into the startup Silicon Valley scene, which is a completely different environment. It was much faster-paced than we’re used to, and required a very different perspective on how to work and create. It refined our understanding of what we do, the impact it has and how we move forward to maximise this impact.

The mission of Our World in Data is to provide an objective overview of the state of the world today, with the perspective of how this has changed over time. To do this we try to be very broad in the topics we cover: we cover everything ranging from CO2 emissions to extreme poverty; child mortality to mental health; from trade to economic inequality.

It’s not our job to influence or change how people perceive the world per se. It’s our job to present the data, facts and best research on the state of the world in an understandable way: it’s then up to the reader to think about how this challenges their own (mis)perceptions of the world. Without the data, having a good understanding of the world is incredibly difficult to do. Overall, the human intuition for it is really poor; this is the case for almost everyone (ourselves included).

Considering the project’s academic background, what led you to bring your work to major audiences? I’m an undergraduate student myself and I reckon bringing real value to people ‘outside the ivory tower’ is a pretty challenging task.

We are, my background, a group of university researchers. But our motivation and drive to start and continue the project stemmed from the frustration that there is so much research out there that just never reaches a larger audience.

People have questions on important issues, but the answers they need are locked in academic papers, either behind paywalls or in buried in technical jargon. Our motivation was to make this available for everyone by summarising the key findings of the research, making interactive data visualizations for understanding, and publishing it on an open-access website.

This has two key aims. We want key decisionmakers, policymakers, journalists etc. to have access to understandable data and research to make good decisions, and communicate effectively. And we also want everyone to have access to the data they need to understand the world, and hold governments and those in power to account. We should all be able to track how our countries are doing, how they compare to others, and how we continue to make progress.

One of my favorite economists, Robert Shiller, stresses how important narratives are to us, as human beings. ‘Our World in Data’ has an interesting way of telling stories, which is through data, empirical evidence. How do you guys fit these things into the same equation, story-telling and data?

Trying to present the data and research not only in an understandable, but also engaging way is one of the most difficult parts of our work. It’s something we are always trying to do, but can always do better at.

The project has taken massive inspiration from the late Hans Rosling and the Gapminder team — he is the best example of how to combine stories and data well.

The difficult part of combining stories and data is that in our day-to-day lives, our anecdotal experiences are often in conflict with the large-scale trends that data informs us about. The daily news cycle is one example: we are strongly influenced by single events that appear in the news — a natural disaster or terrorist attack — but miss the slower, more persistent forces that shape our world.

How the stories interweave with the data is by looking at how the lives of people compare from country to country, and how they are different from in the past. How is the life of a Briton different from a Brazilian on social wellbeing measures? How is the life of a Brazilian today different from 10 years, or a generation ago?

Let’s talk a walk behind the scenes, take the ‘Corruption’ entry as an example. Can you describe briefly, and in general terms, what’s the process behind creating such an entry?

There are so many topics and entries we want to cover. But our selection process of what to work on next is based on a few criteria: what are the topics that are most-discussed and requested (‘plastic pollution’ was an example of this), and where can we add the most value (because it’s an important topic, but also because there’s not a lot of objective public information available on it).

Once we’ve settled on a topic, the next step is to understand what related questions people have. We find this out through a couple of avenues: we look at Google analytics to see what the most common related search queries are; and we ask our users what they’ve always wondered about it. This helps us prioritise where the largest misunderstandings and most pressing questions lie.

The next step takes up most of our time: identifying and assessing the best data available; doing a large review of the academic and policy literature; and extracting the key findings from the data and research. This can take weeks to months: there can be thousands of research papers on any topic.

The final stage is then working out how to effectively communicate the data and research findings to a more general audience. We do this through interactive visualisations of the best data (we have a custom interactive graphing tool) and writing up the key research findings.

On one hand, I hate ugly charts. I have to admit, this is a pet peeve of mine. On the other hand, your charts and infographics are so well-made, so intuitive. What do you think about design and visual communication? How do you deal with this?

We hate ugly charts too. And I think growing up surrounded by poorly designed, confusing charts is why so many people are now scared of data and statistics.

We’re very lucky that our team has a few amazing web developers who build our interactive grapher tool. This makes it easy not only for users to understand, but also makes our job as researchers much easier to make nice intuitive graphs.

Design and visual communication is really crucial for making data understandable. The prominence of data visualization is growing and many are doing this very well. But from personal experience, I find that there are a lot of data visuals out there which sacrifice understanding for beauty; the prettiest of charts are often those which are hard to make sense of. I think there is a balance in making charts that are nice to look at, but also simple enough to read quickly and intuitively. That’s the balance we try to strike.

If I had to represent ‘Our World in Data’ through one infographic, it would be ‘The world as 100 people through the last two centuries’. Simply impressive, could you walk us through it? What’s the idea with it?

That is definitely our most popular infographic. It was created by Max Roser, who founded and is the head of Our World in Data. The aim with the infographic was to show just how massively and quickly social wellbeing across the world has changed over the last few centuries.

200 years ago almost everyone lived in extreme poverty, was uneducated and illiterate, were unvaccinated, had low life expectancy and high child mortality rates. This was true for almost all of human history. Over the last few centuries this has changed completely: the world is wealthier, more educated and healthier than ever before. Most of us lose sight of this incredible progress.

Of course, we still have a lot of work to do: the world is still an incredibly unequal place, 10% of the world still live in extreme poverty and almost 6 million children die every year. The state of the world is unacceptable but understanding that progress is possible is important for it to continue.

Again, a behind-the-scenes view. Can you name three fundamental ‘soft’ skills (writing, teamwork or design, for example) for ‘Our World in Data’ as a team? What about ‘hard’ skills like coding or statistics? How are they combined in a useful way?

Soft skills

  1. Writing and communication: we write for a very general audience of very different backgrounds. Being able to take complex research and communicate the key findings in a clear and understandable way is fundamental.
  2. Objectivity/open-minded: we take a lot of care to make sure our work is objective and a fair assessment of what the research and data on a given topic tells us. This makes it very important to set aside prior biases. We are continually learning about new topics: this means we also have to be open-minded to what the data and research may tell us.
  3. Flexible/curious: we reach over one million users every month with a very small team. This means we need to work in areas we don’t have a specific prior expertise in. Sometimes we need to work on a topic that is not in our direct field: we have to be flexible to doing so and curious to spending months learning about it.

Hard skills

  1. Coding and design: for the web developers, this is obvious. They must create a website and graphing tool that is understandable for a general audience, and easy for us as reseachers to use.
  2. Data analysis: as researchers the majority of our time is spent sourcing, analysing, combining and comparing datasets.
  3. Research: being able to do a full review of the literature, and reach an understanding of the key findings which emerge is crucial to our work.

Soft and hard skills are essential in the full chain of our work. We must be flexible and curious enough to cover new topics, do the essential data analysis and research for the topic, be objective in the key findings, and be able to present this effectively (through both design and writing) to a general audience. This combination of skills is quite rare to find: many people are good at writing; or many are good at data analysis and research in a specific topic. Being able to cover a broad range of topics, whilst combining research & writing is challenging.

Lately, this particular phrase has stuck with me: “If we didn’t have something like this, we would have to create it. And we did it.” How would you relate this to ‘Our World in Data’?

Everyone in our team was drawn to the project from a common frustration: that objective reporting and explanations of research on important global issues wasn’t available. As researchers we know that answers to so many common questions exist: they’re just trapped within academic papers. It was inevitable that if Our World in Data didn’t already exist, our frustration with this fact would build until we all did this translation to the public. Perhaps we would have done this as individual researchers, but I think we’d have come together as a team in end, regardless.

One last question. Why is empirical data important?

It’s impossible to understand our world, and how it’s changing without it. Our personal experiences and anecdotes tell us very little about the slower but persistent forces that are shaping our world. Our intuition for what lives around the world are really like are often very at odds with reality.

We must understand objectively where we are today and how things have changed if we want to work towards a better future.

tt: @asjr_p | learned to code @ 15 y.o. | writer @terracoecon | interested in econ & tech

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