18 March 2019

Big data

The measured view

  • Data is slow news in its purest form, which is why Tortoise aims to pursue stories arising from metrics
  • Comparing the scores of countries in different sectors makes a complex picture comprehensible
  • Highlighting a country’s ‘indicators’ can be a powerful motive for change and progress

By Alexandra Mousavizadeh

When the world Happiness Report is released in March every year, we smile to see that the Finns and the Bhutanese are still among the happiest people on our planet. We ask why the UK is only the 19th happiest? Just 14 places lower and the country would be on a par with Saudi Arabia.

Maybe we then reflect on our assumptions about the world as well as our own personal happiness. If I’m so miserable, why is the UK still scraping into the top 20? Should I consider moving to Iceland?

Researchers have spent decades trying to develop metrics for happiness and wellbeing (and misery), but it wasn’t until the World Happiness Index arrived in 2011 that people began to think of global happiness as measurable. The index was commissioned by the UN and adopted by the General Assembly Resolution 65/309. Happiness and wellbeing were immediately driven to the top of the agenda, and an index to rank the world’s countries on their contentment put pressure on governments to focus on this measure explicitly.

This is what indices can do. They make sense of the world around us, and tell us where we stand in it. They are myth-busters and truth-tellers. They get to the point, identifying problems that need fixing, showing us what works, what doesn’t and why.

An important part of what we are doing at Tortoise is data journalism – finding stories in large sets of data. It is slow news in its purest form. Our tool for this work is the index.

What is an index?

An index is a way of measuring something that cannot be measured as one single fact. Instead of a snapshot, it delivers clarity on topics that can be complex by nature. Slavery, corruption, freedom were in the shadows from a data perspective but are now mapped and tracked over time, compared across countries, and in full view of the media.

We identify the information that’s relevant, research the way to measure those different bits of information, and take large data sets and distil them down to create a base score that combines the results.

Here’s an example: we want to measure the level of peace in countries around the world. But peace is a complex concept – it cannot really be measured by a single criterion. But facts and statistics can be gathered to create a view of the rate of murders, the number of terrorist incidents, the number of refugees, the amount of spending on military technology and so on. These facts and statistics are “indicators” – they point us towards the bigger picture.

Creating scores by measuring the different bits of information allows us to combine them into a single base score and it is this score that gives us the index of peace in a country and around the world. This process can be repeated, for modern slavery, corruption, free speech, environmental performance and economic freedom – in fact, the top ten indices in the world measure exactly these real situations.

What can indices show us?

By measuring something as important and real as peace, freedom, trust or ease of doing business, an index can provide insight that single facts cannot. Think of it like this: an index pools together the explanatory value of many different bits of information into one simple fact, an index score.

An index can show whatever the different indicators that make up the index are measuring. This means they can show us more about anything – as long as that thing can be identified, researched, measured and validated.

How much would we be able to tell about the health of democracy – another important and real situation – from voter participation alone? The answer is not much at all. But we can learn a significant amount from looking at voter participation, as well as the number of single party systems, number of restrictions on electoral process, reports of threats against voters and so on. Some indices can show us measures derived from hundreds, if not thousands, of indicators. In this way they tell us a complicated story, with many moving parts, in a simple, relatable score.

Why are indices important?

Indices are accurate, insightful and, most of all, a powerful tool for change. Governments around the world make complex decisions all the time. So the data required by governments must be clear, concise and communicable. In many countries, the difference between progress and disaster is the agreement of opposing political groups.

Indices present facts in a non-partisan way – they don’t represent one ideology, group or tribe, and they can make a big impact. Take the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index. That index has directly driven more than 2,000 reforms in countries all over the world, and more than 80 countries take advice from the team that runs it. Its findings aren’t just rigorous and rich, they’re easy to understand, meaning they reach a huge audience when they come out every year.

We at Tortoise believe that fact-based arguments can make readers think again, and can drive people in power to use their power for the better. As the saying goes: “You can’t manage what you can’t measure.”

Further reading

The ET Bureau highlights the significance of the Ease of Doing Business Index.

UN Development Goals for Education are based on the Global GPI Report

The Aid Transparency Index breaks new ground in fostering accountability.

Vision of Humanity, a project from the Institute for Economics and Peace hopes to see its Global Peace Index have a broad effect on policy