Every Number Tells a Story

By Judith Mueller


Recently I read an IBM report stating that every day we create 2.5 quintillion bytes of data; put more simply, a staggering 90 percent of the data in the world today has been created in the last two years.

Such expansion is quite incredible, and it's not surprising that "big data" has become a buzzword.

On the flip side, by nature of the sheer volume of data these days, we as individuals, leaders, and decision makers can easily feel overwhelmed when asked to make a data-driven decision. It can be taxing to sift through overflowing dashboards, look at yet another pie chart and then try to distill meaning from all these numbers.

While there is little disagreement on the positive impact that data can have on decision making, too often a lack of framing and context inhibits leaders from identifying the core issues, and a decision, rather than perhaps the best decision, is made.

The question in my mind is how we can make data-driven processes and outcomes more relatable and personal so that we can realize their full potential. I believe the answer lies in storytelling.

To give you an example, here are four seemingly random numbers: 11; 2,005; 2; and 3.5.
If I left you alone with these number, you might stare at them for a few minutes, maybe see if they are part of a series and then, more likely than not, move on with your life. But what if I engaged you in a conversation and told you that these numbers can help you get to know me better?

When I was 11, my parents and I moved from a small town in Germany to the U.S. I did not speak English, so you can imagine my excitement when, during math class, I realized that math equations were the same on both sides of the Atlantic. I was relieved that I could complete my homework in this one class without slaving over a dictionary.

This ignited my passion and appreciation for all things related to numbers, particularly since these math equations helped me feel less different.

Fast-forward to my first year at university in 2005, where economics, with its endless equations and supply-and-demand curves, felt overwhelming until I learned to create stories about the theories taught in class: Cookie Monster's demand for cookies decreases when the Grinch places a $5 tax on chocolate chips.

I realized that by putting numbers into the context of stories, the concepts became more interesting and understandable. From then on, my aptitude for numbers led to numerous economics and math classes in college and graduate school.

As Director for Monitoring and Evaluation at Projects for All, a nonprofit that builds solar-powered, Internet-enabled computer hubs in remote communities across the world, the practical application of my academic training has only enhanced my love of numbers. My job is to tell compelling stories about our impact through the data we collect.

More importantly, I teach communities how to tell their own stories through data and numbers.

Over the course of my professional journey, I have identified two very important problems: Availability and affordability of good data is difficult, and expertise in how to tell the right story through data is often lacking.

For the past three and a half months, my passion for data has been channeled into bridging these gaps in the form of DataGrid. As a global online platform, DataGrid aims to break down the economic and financial barriers to getting, sharing, and using data, while providing expertise to ask the right questions and showcase the stories behind the data in order to improve everyday lives.

In today's world it can be overwhelming to find meaning in the explosion of data, graphs and charts. The trick to navigating this new landscape is to make a concerted effort to find personal connections to the numbers and tell the stories behind the numbers.

We all have sets of numbers that we can use to tell individual stories, describe the state of our organizations, and shed light on the impact of our projects. My four numbers relate to pivotal moments in my life that tell the story of how my passion for data and its application evolved.

Whatever your numbers may be, the chances are good that they will look random until you do the work to connect the dots. So I encourage you to think: What are your numbers, and what story do they tell?

These are some of the themes explored and celebrated by UK-based social enterprise Pioneers for Change. Their inaugural six-month fellowship kicked off on March 23 and 24, 2015, in London. Pioneers for Change is an initiative of Adessy Associates.

About Judith: Judith is Director of Monitoring and Evaluation at a nonprofit called Projects for All. She is deeply passionate about empowering communities by giving them the knowhow to tell their stories through numbers. She devotes her free time to being the director of DataGrid, an online platform aimed at building a global network of data analysts and providing data to anyone who needs it, regardless of ability to pay. Since receiving her two master's degrees from Columbia University, she has been living in New York City with her mini Australian Shepherd, Oliver.