Mon, Aug 05, 2013 - Page 9 News List

A nation’s people as seen in statistics

From crime figures to the GDP, teenage pregnancies to retirement ages, there is no corner of Britain that the Office for National Statistics does not reach, and the data it gathers shapes government policy

By Paula Cocozza  /  The Guardian, LONDON

Its research underpins the statistics that underpin our lives. If your house or car insurance rises (owing to new crime figures) or if the government decides that the majority of public opinion is in favor of gay marriage, it is probably because of research by the ONS.

What do the people behind the statistics look like, and what is the process that turns their lives, snapped in situations as surreal as the one above, into data? The ONS is habitually secretive, because it takes the confidentiality of its interviewees extremely seriously, but for the first time it has agreed to be observed at work.

So here is Masterman, on the fringes of Southampton, on the south coast of England. She has arranged to interview a young woman, but it is a boy in school uniform who answers.

His sister is not home “and she hasn’t texted my mom,” he said.

It is the first of the day’s many no-shows or no thank-yous. The next door opens, and a cloud of captive cigarette smoke heads for the exit.

“She’s out,” the man said. “I don’t live here.”

So the day goes on, Masterman driving around in her car with the sticker that reads “I don’t suffer from insanity, I enjoy every minute of it.”

Demand for information of the kind Masterman gathers is growing.

“We are surveyed more often now,” University of Southampton professor of research methodology Patrick Sturgis said. “It is partly to do with the Internet and the development of infrastructure to do this easily. We are asked more and more questions in different contexts.”

He has no citation, but quips: “You could do a survey asking people if they have been surveyed.”

This is not so far-fetched. The ONS canvasses opinion on how best to phrase its survey questions. It has ditched the word “nowadays” because young people found it old-fashioned.

By the end of the day, Masterman has completed only one full survey, of a student who was 70 percent happy. At the last house, there is no answer, but a knocking noise is coming from the garage. Masterman calls out and the door rolls up noisily.

“I’m a bit busy,” the man said, chalking his cue.

This seems a bare-faced fib, until he explains that he is practicing for pool trials.

“And I have recently had a hair transplant,” he said.

He wants to help another day. They make an appointment, exchange numbers, and the exchange feels like a promise, the numbers seal the deal. After all, most people have a faith in numbers that exceeds their faith in words.

This trust in numbers may help to explain why the language used to talk about data has been naturalized. It gets scattered and harvested, gathered, cut and cleaned. The author of The Philosophy of Information, Luciano Floridi, said there is an area of research that looks at information gathering as “information foraging,” as if data really were the good of the land, freely available and nutritious to anyone who knows where to look (such as Twitter and Google Trends, which the ONS now tracks in order to supplement and counter-check its own reckonings).

“We are no longer journeying round this strange tropical place known as [the] cybersphere,” Floridi said. “In the [19]90s the metaphor was the frontier — surfing, exploring. It was all about seeing the Web as a geographical space, not a personal space. Because we are settling down, biological metaphors become more natural. We are natives here now.”

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