[OpenSpending] Representing things in terms of other things?

Jonathan Gray jonathan.gray at okfn.org
Wed Apr 17 19:37:54 UTC 2013

Thanks for this Tony. I very much agree that this needs to be done in the
right way. I was less flagging this specific article as a shining example
of making comparisons (I only skimmed the examples), than using it as a
'hook' for a more general discussion to see if people had any cunning ideas
about how something like this might be done.

Do you have any thoughts about how this could be done? ;-)

On 17 April 2013 20:38, Tony Bowden <tony at mysociety.org> wrote:

> On 17 April 2013 20:14, Jonathan Gray <jonathan.gray at okfn.org> wrote:
> > This recent story [1] made me wonder whether we could do something for
> Open
> > Spending (or even a separate little thing, related to OpenSpending) to
> show
> > big spending items in terms of other smaller or similar spending items?
> I have a major problem with that Guardian article, in that it seems
> more to promote financial illiteracy, presumably to score some cheap
> political points. It pretends to be adding clarity as to what £10m is,
> but instead simply perpetuates (and strengthens) standard
> misconceptions.
> So, to take the first example, £10m wouldn't really "pay for" 322
> nurses. The cost of employing a nurse (or indeed anyone) is
> considerably more than their salary. A general rule of thumb is than
> an employee will usually "cost" 2x their salary. Secondly, it ignores
> the critical distinction between one-off costs and recurring costs.
> Simply stating that it's "for one year" doesn't really address the
> sleight of hand inherent in pretending that these costs are
> equivalent.
> But I'd still be concerned even if the information were presented
> differently (e.g. "Could employ 20 nurses for 10 years"). This still
> only gives the _impression_ of useful context, by cherry-picking a
> single number (the cost of a nurse), and making that number look much
> bigger than it really is. (And using an emotionally charged
> example[1], to boot, but that's a slightly different rant.)
> Most people will instinctively think of 20 extra nurses see it in a
> hyper-local context — in terms of a hospital they've been at recently,
> or with reference to someone they know who's recently lost their job,
> or the like. But out of ~400,000 nurses employed by the NHS, 20 (or
> even 322) makes very close to zero difference.
> A more accurate way of expressing the same number in the same context
> is that £10m could increase the median nurse salary from £31,095 to
> £31,100 for five years. But as that suddenly makes the £10m seem
> small, rather than large, I suspect it doesn't fit the narrative the
> Guardian are trying to put across.
> And that's only the problem with looking at £10m against the fraction
> of government spending that is nurses' salaries. Out of the full
> £720bn, £10m is even smaller still. And any attempt to 'translate' the
> numbers into something that people can understand, but which doesn't
> convey *that*, is hindering, rather than helping.
> Lest anyone misunderstand — I very much agree with Jonathan's
> underlying idea here. Contextualisation of information, and in
> particular of big numbers, is hugely important. But it's so important
> that it needs to be done right — and a lot of how it's being done
> these days is very far from right.
> I also have no objection to the Guardian having a narrative they want
> to get across here. I probably even agree with what they're saying.
> But I *do* object to manner in which they're doing it, and, more
> crucially, I think the Open Knowledge Foundation, or those of us doing
> related things in similar fields, need to be even more careful not to
> fall into these same sorts of traps.
> Tony
> [1] Doubly so by the wider context being highly charged too.
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Jonathan Gray <http://jonathangray.org/> | @jwyg <http://twitter.com/jwyg>
Director of Policy and Ideas
The Open Knowledge Foundation <http://okfn.org/> |
Support our work: okfn.org/support
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