29 September 2011

The Problem With Twitter-Ready Data

Women perform 66 percent of the world’s work, and produce 50 percent of the food, yet earn only 10 percent of the income….  
--Former President Bill Clinton addressing the annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative (September 2009) 
Impressive, heart-wrenching, charity-inducing, get off your sofa and go do something heartbreaking. 
But Wrong. 
It’s a problem isn’t it? Almost all those twitter-sized 140 character, pull-all-the-right-heart-strings messages (& yes, the “oh-we-did-so-great” messages like David gently took aim at) are usually wrong. Or at least don’t stand up to detailed scrutiny without many, many caveats. 
Working on the gender World Development Report, here are some of our favorite ones: 
Women make up nearly 70 percent of the world's poor and 65 percent of the world's illiterate. (International Labour Organisation 1996
Women produce half the world's food, but own only one percent of its farmland (CARE, “Women’s Day Facts”
Increasing gender equality by ____________ would increase growth by ___ %. 
We specially love this last format, because you can put in anything in the first and second blanks, and the statement would almost surely be wrong
That is Marcus Goldstein and Jushnu Das in the World Bank Development Impact blog beginning to discuss the problems with reducing data into a neat sound bite.  In short, it often ends up being wrong.  My personal favorite is the one that says that women spend 90% of their income on their families.  This was used recently at the WFP/UN Women in NYC last week and just about every advocate for investing in women.  What is likely is that women do put more money to their families than men, but it sounds better when it can be said that they contribute 90 cents on the dollar.

The suggestion of the authors, which I like, is to start having active fact checking bodies that do the same as fact-checkers on US politicians.  They see the World Bank as one of those bodies that can contribute, but it may be hard with sources like twitter.  If a celebrity with a large following tweets out a false statistic point it is likely to be shared outwardly from his/her followers who will reach their own followers and so on.  Correcting that mistake will be harder because all the people who saw the original tweet will need to see the correction.  However, there is good reason to root it out so that it is not repeated.

Definitely chalk this up as one of the limitations of twitter.  The restriction of characters means that people and NGOs have to be quick and clever with what they say.