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“Why the £350m NHS ‘data’ lie matters for the future of politics”

Andy Cotgreave, a senior product evangelist at data vis software company Tableau, explores the shortcomings in how data is used to change hearts and minds

It’s telling that the fictitious ‘£350 million per week to the EU’ statistic that the Leave campaign cynically jammed into the public consciousness is the most memorable of the three-month Brexit campaign. 

It shows just how unscrupulously both campaigns used real (and in many cases compelling) data at their disposal to cajole, convince and convert the British public.

Here’s what the political operatives are missing – facts and figures aren’t just building blocks in a rational argument. Data is also a very powerful tool for inciting an emotional response.

But I’m not talking about their ‘dog whistle politics’, infantilising the electorate with big, scary statistics.

I’m talking about presenting accurate data intelligently and using it to tell a persuasive story.

This is a powerful example: Simon Scarr’s famous infographic in the South China Morning Post back in 2011 entitled ‘Iraq’s Bloody Toll’.

His original is on the left below. Its individual bars point downwards and are coloured in deep red to deliberately create the illusion of blood dripping down the page or screen.

The chart evokes a strong reaction in the reader as they see and compare the military and civilian deaths, blending the rational and the emotional to devastating effect.

Image credit: South China Morning Post
Image credit: South China Morning Post

That’s unless you decide to tell the tale in a different way, like I’ve done with the image on the right. Imagine if Simon had pointed the bars upwards and coloured them differently – it tells a completely different story – but both are valid presentations of the data.

Next, take a look at this global warming chart on Bloomberg’s website that cleverly animates data to show just how dramatically the world’s temperature has increased in the last few decades.

The way the story develops through the animation adds so much more suspense and drama than if the author had used a static chart showing the change over 100 years.

It leaves the reader with a sense of impending dread as the temperature line goes up and up and up.

In both of these examples the author is consciously using data, without deception, to present one side of a debate in a partisan, persuasive way.

Data is a language, too. Numbers are as malleable and as flexible as words.

What confuses me is why politicians have no problem using speeches or newspaper editorials to assert their biased point of view, yet they struggle to translate these techniques into the world of facts and figures.

Just as Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream is remembered as one of the most persuasive forms of oratory ever delivered, just as Barack Obama’s ‘Hope’ portrait is seen as supremely convincing imagery, surely the next great wave of political communication is data, cleverly presented, and used to tell an emotive story.

The litmus test for this is the upcoming US presidential election in November. In 2008 Obama’s campaign was lauded for its ground-breaking use of social media, and again in 2012 for its use of data analytics.

I expect the Trump and Clinton camps to invest heavily in meaningful, interactive charts that bring their supporting facts and figures to life. The side that uses data the most honestly and effectively will win the most respect.

But it has to be a million miles away from figures plucked out of thin air and used to make false promises.

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