I’m a data person. I denied it for a long time, but at the end of the day, an Excel spreadsheet and an unbelievable amount of data that needs to be interpreted, gives me the warm comfort that a mothers hug would give [it really does, and has nothing to do with the fact that my mum is not really a ‘hugging’ type. My mum even joked to my husband Erik on our wedding day asking if he was ready for the only hug he’d ever get from her for eternity]. But lately I’ve been feeling that numbers have been copping a really raw deal. Forget ‘fake news’ and all that hype, numbers have been used and abused by politicians, journalists and corporates for decades. And as a data person, I feel for my people.
Data and facts are a great way to translate a message for a mass audience, however the amount of either deliberate extrapolation (ie. If A + B = C then A + JIXODKMDJ&*# also = C right?), or just downright inaccuracy because someone couldn’t be bothered, is getting a bit absurd. And I hear that numbers have had enough. They’re primed to revolt and number 7 is leading the charge [haha I hope you enjoyed that one all you math nerds].
Below are just some instances of where the numbers ≠ correct use [ok I might have to give it a rest with the maths gags before my inner nerd from Year 12 who did 3 maths subjects because I thought it was cool, might rear it’s ugly head and start belligerently asking me “yo bitch, why can’t you remember how to do calculus”, to which present day Arani would “gimme a break, I never got taught how to long divide…that’s your fault” (also a true story…I got in trouble in Grade 4 once and was sent to the Principal’s Office – it was at that very moment that my evil Grade 4 teacher taught long division. Never again was I to have the opportunity to learn how to divide large numbers….oh to be young again)].
The Politician: “Ah yep the interest rate is 1500 thousand per cent….1.5% yep, that’s what I said”
Australia’s a very lucky country. We’ve got lovely beaches, friendly smiles and almost everyone over 35 has had the opportunity to learn to count and understand what a percentage is. I don’t think it’s a lot to ask that our politicians be able to understand the numbers they use in soundbites and be able to provide the proof for their calculations. It’s not just about bungling numbers, it’s the use of numbers to somehow pull the wool over our eyes. It’s like some politicians go lose track of what their saying and decide to throw a number out there as if it’s something shiny that the public will quickly turn to look at and forget all about them: “look ummm the fact is we have to turn back the boats and ummm ummm ummmm and 47! [sprints in other direction]”.
The worst is that they all clearly can’t even add. Surely that’s the only explanation for the gross misuse of the public purse!? Sussan Ley probably thought that 120 chartered flights multiplied by $2,000 a flight was $24 right? Everyone sucks at multiplying with 0s. [Just an aside, how can anyone justify chartering flights ‘for work’. I once was working 18 hour days and bought a jelly cup to eat as a treat for working between 2am and 3am and the fucking AMEX Vampire at work made me pay that back! She made me pay back 75c! I can’t even buy a jelly cup whilst I’m AT WORK and these fucking politicians get to swan about in their chartered planes? I feel like sponsoring the AMEX Vampire to go work in the Australian Public Service for a little bit to sort these fuckers out].
The News Reporter: “80% of friends polled in my largest whatsapp group said it was an issue, so it must be true”
Journalists have hard deadlines to meet and lots of topics to cover – I get it. But just making up statistics for the sake of ‘having a number’ to sound more credible is so mediocre. I recently read this article, and stumbled upon this little gem of idiocy:
“Gerry Harvey of Harvey Norman recently came out saying that furniture retail won’t be affected too much if Amazon comes to Australia, because people don’t shop for furniture that much online, but rather it’s the electrical goods that are really going to take a thrashing. However, I beg to differ. More than half of my peers shop for furniture online. I moved house 12 months ago and 80 percent of all my furniture was purchased online.”
WAAAAAAHHHH? 80%????? OMG that’s like almost the entire furniture market! Gerry Harvey, arguably one of Australia’s greatest retail brains, must be so stupid not to realise that this journalist (and her friends) are clearly representative of the WHOLE MARKET!
This just makes me so angry. Being a data person, one of my jobs is often to find data points. Penetration of online sales in furniture is one of those such points which is available if you do a quick Google or use an analytics firm source. But no. We had to not only create our own sample size, we had to survey it and then rather than use that sample data, just throw that shit out and include one instance of when you moved house 12 months ago. And exactly what is 80%? Is your apartment just furnished with two items, one of which was bought online and so you thought “hey 50% bought online rounds up to 80%”.
But news reporters are also victims of those feeding them the data. In particular, those who right for the fine institution that is the Business section of any newspaper. Now I’m not going to name names, but I’ve noticed a little trend of Business sections miraculously being in total agreement with the media release of corporate announcements and regurgitating the release verbatim. It’s absolutely amazing, how after all their analysis, they can come to the exact same conclusion and words.
The Corporate: “Please do this market size analysis that would usually take 6 months to complete in 2 days, then provide me with the result so that I can round that number up and tell my boss that we’re roughly on track to deliver to target”
I’ve done a lot of forecasting in my career to date [wow the word ‘fore casting’ sounds so much cooler than it actually is. Imagine if I could say whilst staring into a crystal ball “yeah I forecast profits to be…” then spin around in my cape, and smoke emits from the side of the room, then I put a stick of cinnamon in a boiling pot of lava and say “up 1.2% for the quarter”. That would be so awesome.]
Anyway in my career of forecasting financials for the upcoming year, I’m always amazed how my boss will always have a forecast based on “top down” “back of the envelope stuff” and I’m required to do a “bottoms up” calculation to merely confirm that number. Oh the pain of spending hours modelling, having your boss ask you to include this and that and then ask you if you’ve included another growth lever to which the response is always “yes, I had to track through Nepal on a donkey to visit the office that had the number and got attacked by rabbies-infested monkeys on the way, but yes I’ve included that number in the model”. Then only to have someone more senior hard code in a “11” so that the final profit number is $150M for the year.
My favourite use of numbers in the corporate world would definitely have to be ‘rules of thumb’. You have the innocent use: “Rule of Thumb is that we usually take 10% of transactions, so given there were $100M transactions, our revenue is $10M”….cool story bro, but why don’t you just check your ACTUAL numbers? Then of course there’s the less innocent use: “Rule of Thumb is that we’re 60% of market share, a NAB report released in 1998 says the market size was $20B and let’s assume the market has grown at 5% (because you know 5% is a nice round number) and so that means the market is now $50B and so our revenue is $30B….you follow? Ok let’s go tell some investors that so they can make investment decisions based on our awesome number skills”
So you’ve been warned politicians, journalists and corporate slugs, I’m onto you. And if the number’s don’t stack up, I’ll start doing what my mum did….sending you Singapore Primary School maths books and trade completing one whole book for a hug.