Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Stat's the way...I don't like it

This may sound a little bit weird coming from someone in the communication business but I really am suffering from information overload at the moment.

There is just so much stuff out there to deal with and the difficult job seems to be deciding what you do need to know about – and what you don’t.

Take this week. As you will have seen in every newspaper we have become a nation of crime-spotters this week. For, on Tuesday, the police launched a website where you can see exactly how many crimes have occurred in your street, estate, village or town. The idea provoked such interest that the website received 75,000 hits a minute and the computers nearly blew up as a result. It was like the Take That tour all over again.

But, I don’t really understand why we need to know all this stuff. Sure, in the newspapers I work for we like to report on trends and it’s important to know, roughly speaking, if you live in a benign area or Beruit. But to take it down to the detail of how many crimes are actually on your street without any real context as to their seriousness will just leave us all convinced that the crime situation is far, far worse than it really is.

I checked the post code for example for my very pleasant area and discovered that in December there were no robberies (hoorah!) but quite a lot of examples of anti-social behaviour. I haven’t seen any, hadn’t heard about any but now I am worried that I’ve accidentally moved to The Bronx. So what was the point of all that palaver then?

It’s the same with school league tables. Yes we report them in our titles because some parents do like to study the figures but the fact that ‘School A’ does better at maths than ‘School B’ doesn’t mean that School B is a worse place to send your child. The ‘A-C passes’ say nothing about the friendliness of the teachers, the standard of the school meals or the levels of bullying and yet in the era where ‘info is king’ the stats are all what some people really care about.

And nowadays as well as finding stats about local crime and local school tables, you can, with just a few clicks of the mouse, find out whether you live in an area where people drink a lot, whether your neighbours exercise enough, how old you might be when you die if you stay there etc. etc. etc ad nauseaum. Why? And why should we care?

Oh and, it’s also worth noting that as you trawl the internet to find out the answers to these and other questions, that there are lies, damned lies and internet statistics. For instance I just ‘self-Googled’ and was delighted to see that the phrase ‘Sam Holliday’ yielded 935,000 results. I suddenly thought I was far more important and well known than I could ever have dreamed of – until I saw the third entry which referred to the fact that ‘I’ was apparently a former director of Stability Studies at the US Army War College.

Ah well I at least got the top two spots in 'my' list – but something tells me I won’t have got the 900,000th . . .

No comments: