Context over Content

Over at FlowingData.com (an excellent site) I was reading a great post about how British Petroleum is trying to mislead us with graphs in their efforts to curb the oil spill in the Gulf. This really got me thinking about something that we all know but often ignore. A creative person can really make data say anything they want. You can take the exact same numbers and present them in different ways to elicit different responses.

This is an example of 2 separate graphs, similar to ones that I’ve seen around in several places on the Internet.

This data is for the purposes of this article only and does not represent real data.

At first blush, these might look like they represent 2 different sets of students. In reality, this is the exact same data with just a change in the baseline number of the graph. As you can see, if my goal was to present that the students are similar across all the disciplines, I would certainly present you with the first graph. However, if I wanted to show you that the students represented here were much weaker in Language studies as opposed to Science, I would use the second graph. Even though they both contain the exact same information, the context of them is very different just by making one small change.

In the proper setting, there is nothing more valuable that good solid data in any decision making process. But I would argue that the data behind any presentation is worthless (if not downright manipulative) without the proper context behind it. Be careful when you see any data as to the agenda behind it.

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