The Art of Telling a Story with Numbers

Numbers do not speak for themselves.  They need help.  It often seems that the journey to develop a number can be so long that by the time we have finally defined, collected and analyzed an indicator, we often just release them into space with little regard to context and narrative to help others understand their meaning.  



Take this figure for instance:  It cost 2.3 billion dollars to run federal prisons in Canada in 2012.  I know billions is a lot, but what does it really mean?  Is this more or less than last year?  How is this relative to other places?  

The Toronto Sun gives more help along with a little spin to make the taxpayer wake up and take note: “Canadians taxpayers dished out an average of $113,974 to lodge an inmate in a federal prison last year - a 30% increase from four years ago. “ 

Here are some other examples of portraying numbers so that they convey a lot with very little:


  •  Amount Americans spent last year on UNICEF donations to trick-or-treaters : $3,731,057;
  • On Halloween costumes for their pets: $330,000,000‎.



  • The U.S. uses 1.2 billion pounds of pesticides a year, but only a mere 0.01 percent actually reach the intended target: the bugs. The rest ends up contaminating our food, air and water. 


  •  Recycling one aluminum can saves enough energy to run a TV for three hours.

But there are definite limits of telling a story with numbers that bump into the edges of good analysis.  While it’s helpful to put numbers in context, it can also be misleading because it is too easy to take numbers and apply them in a new way without understanding how they were calculated.  Going back to the prison example, it would be very tempting to take that number and then calculate that if we ran a program that successfully prevented recidivism, we could save $113,974 for each person every year that they would have been in prison.  But a little digging would show that 90% of the cost of running an existing prison is relatively fixed (eg., administrative costs); so  a small reduction in prison counts will not produce tremendous cost savings.   So while we ought to give a little time to breath some life and story into our numbers, don’t make it to easy for them to walk away!




Recycling Facts

blog type: 
Issues & Ideas