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How can data change society?

Publication of data sets and analyses can have a powerful impact on society. The team discusses recent environmental case studies and their influence.
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JEREMY: Hi, Peter. Hi, Lovisa. We’ve had loads of fun on the course. And hopefully, people have learned lots about how data works and how you process it and what you can do with it. And I guess now, as we come to the end of the course, we want to talk about how data can really have an impact and make a change in society. Data– making the world a better place.
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PETER: Yes, definitely.
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JEREMY: Have you got some examples you can share with us, Peter, about how people have used data to improve society?
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PETER: There’s a really interesting study that actually appeared in the news quite recently that basically combined a whole load of different statistical information– open data sets from around the world– to actually find that only 9% of all the plastics ever produced have been recycled. And actually, when you think about it, it’s quite a shocking statistic. We all put stuff in our blue bins. And hope that it will actually be recycled.
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JEREMY: And where does it go? Oh no.
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PETER: Where does it go? So actually, quite a bit of it ends up being incinerated– or, actually, the largest majority of it ends up in landfill. Maybe not in landfill in Britain– it might actually end up being shipped across to another country for reprocessing– but actually end up in landfill somewhere else.
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JEREMY: Yeah, that is interesting. So where did they get the data from?
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PETER: A whole load of different data sets. So the World Steel Association, the US Geological Survey. There was also data that was taken from a number of different studies– so, for example, “The Compelling Facts about Plastics and Analysis of Plastic Demand and Recovery for 2006 in Europe.” And so what they were able to do was they were able to look at these different reports and data sets and actually pull them together into a coherent whole. And it just shows the power of being able to aggregate multiple pieces of data together in order to come up with a much more powerful story.
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JEREMY: I think those headline statistics are really important as well. That’s something that grabs everyone’s attention– 91% of plastic is never– what did you say? Never recycled.
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PETER: Yup, 91% of plastic has never been recycled. So it’s either been incinerated or it’s ended up in landfill or possibly even in the oceans.
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JEREMY: Thanks. Lovisa, have you got an example of an interesting data fact that could change the world?
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LOVISA: Yeah, I’m personally quite concerned with air pollution levels in city centres. And there is this wave of initiatives around the world where cities try out and experiment with different policies to reduce car commuters and improve the bike infrastructure– for example, in order to reduce these levels. So for example, there’s data from Paris or Bogota indicating that this has been extremely successful in slashing the emission levels in the city. So I think this provides a very strong foundation for persuading your local politicians to, for example, improve bike infrastructure. And in fact, I’ve contacted the city council in Glasgow to implement similar policies.
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PETER: It’s quite amazing that Glasgow, actually– when you do look at the data– has got the highest level of air pollution of any of the major cities in Scotland. So again, you can use the data to actually tell a story. So one of the things that often crops up is health outcomes for people who live in Glasgow city. And so by tackling something like air pollution, that actually could make a really big difference to people’s overall level of health and well-being.
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JEREMY: Yeah. I think a really important point that we should properly explore a bit is what to do with the data once you’ve got it. You mentioned there about writing to politicians. I didn’t think people did that, but you do, obviously. Well done, Lovisa. That was great. How else, Peter, can we get the facts out there? How else can we influence public opinion?
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PETER: Well, everybody including their granny is on social media of one form or another. So actually, you’ve got Facebook, you’ve got Twitter, you’ve got Instagram– and these are all great ways in which you can actually get pieces of information out there and hopefully catch people’s interest and attention. And then, once it starts to be shared or retweeted, then you can start to build a bit of a groundswell of support for a particular issue or an action, a call to arms, that you’ve got. I think one of the important things, though, with social media is that visuals are really important. So after three days, if it’s just text-based information, people will remember about 10%.
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If it’s something where you’ve got a simple, eye-catching graph or other kind of visualisation. Then, actually, the amount of information that they retain is much higher– it’s around about 66% of the information. After three days, they will remember and retain. The other nice thing about including short video clips or short graphic-style illustrations is that they tend to actually be retweeted and re-shared much more often than just plain text posts. So it’s really important to think, once you’ve got your overall data story, what are some of the most interesting individual pieces that might form a tweet or a microblog post that’s likely to catch people’s attention and get them to share it more widely.
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And I think the most important thing, when you include that, is to also think about what’s your call to arms? So have a short message about what you want them to do based on that information. So whether that’s to write to their MP, to speak to their local councillor, or whether it’s actually–
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JEREMY: Take to the streets.
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PETER: Take to the streets– indeed. But whether it is some form of action that they can do to actually help address the issue that you’ve discovered and that you’re advocating for change for.
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JEREMY: Yeah. That’s really nice. So data’s like the kind of lever of change, the thing that you’re going to use to move people to try and influence policy or change the outcomes. Lovisa, you introduced us to lots of really nice visualisations in the second week of our course. And I think some of those pop up often in social media. And also in mainstream media, as well. This is The Guardian here– other newspapers are available. But I think often in The Guardian, they have lots of data, blogs, and visualisations and in-depth studies of different social aspects of data sets and so on. Yeah, good.
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You were talking about how maybe schoolchildren can have some kind of an effect on the world as well, Lovisa. You talk about school strikes and things like that.
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LOVISA: School strikes, yes. Speak with your teacher– I would recommend. And show them the data. I think many people are not aware of just how dire the situation is. And I think–
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JEREMY: For climate change?
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LOVISA: Climate change, exactly. So I think with some nice data-based discussions, I think you might be able to persuade your teacher to participate in this global movement.
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JEREMY: OK, good. So on that note, it’s amazing to think that we as citizens are really empowered by data. And we’ve got the tools and techniques, which you started learning about in this course, I suppose, to make the world a better place through data.
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PETER: Yes, definitely.

Once a data science investigation is complete, it’s time to get out there and publicize the findings. There are lots of different ways to do this, some of which might be more effective than others.

Thinking about the data mini-project you have now completed, how will you share the results with other people? What potential change might you be looking to achieve?

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