Presenting data using_social_math
Social math tools
Published on: Mar 4, 2016
Transcripts - Presenting data using_social_math
Activity: Presenting Data Using Social Math
Every day we are bombarded with news stories involving very large numbers or statistics that mean
little to anyone but the researchers. We hear about billions of dollars for various programs and
projects or we might learn that hundreds of thousands of people are at risk for a particular disease,
or that a large percent of the population feel a certain way about a particular issue. We know the
numbers are important, but more often than not we are numbed rather than informed because we
simply don’t have a way of understanding the meaning of the number.
Advocates must become skilled in translating large numbers so they become interesting for the
journalist and meaningful to the audience. “Social math” is the practice of making large numbers
comprehensible and compelling by placing them in a social context that provides meaning. A few
ways to do this:
• A number broken down by time: Given the amount over the course of one year, what does
that look like per day, per hour, or per minute? For example, advocates could say: “The
number of babies born to teen mothers (aged 15 to 19) in California peaked in 1991 at
70,322. By 1998, the California teen birth rate decreased to 53.2 per 1,000, down to
58,141 babies born to teen mothers that year.” It would be better to say: “Every 8 minutes a
baby is born to a teen.”
• A number broken down by place: Comparing a statistic with a well-known place can give
people a sense of the statistic’s magnitude. For example, “If the 13.5 million poor children in
America were gathered in one place, they would form a city bigger than New York.”i Or,
“Because of limited funding, approximately 13.3 million eligible children went without
federally supported childcare in 2000. That’s enough children to fill all 30 major league
ballparks… Nearly ten times.”ii
• A localized number: Make numbers meaningful to community members and policymakers in
a specific region. Rather than using state or federal statistics, advocates can use local data.
For example, using population figures, health reform advocates can calculate their county’s
share of the annual costs of nationwide health issues. Breaking the numbers down by
legislative district can help hold the legislator whose district is affected accountable. For
example, “Experts estimate there are more than 100,000 obese children in the San Diego
region. ‘It would take two Qualcomm Stadiums to hold all those children,’ said Jeffrey
Schwimmer, an assistant professor of pediatrics at UCSD.”iii
• A comparisons to familiar things: Compare and contrast numbers with something easily
identifiable to the audience. For example, "A child consuming a can of regular caffeinated
soda receives a caffeine equivalent of about four cups of coffee." iv Or, “A 20-ounce soda has
16 teaspoons of sugar. The average American consumes 45 gallons of sugary drinks a year.
That’s 29 pounds of sugar – about as much as a 5-year-old child weighs!”v
Presenting Data Using Social Math, continued
• An ironic comparison: In order to draw attention to an unmet need, suggest more appropriate
use of resources, point out skewed priorities, and make a case for a policy change. For
example, “The average child care teacher makes $15,430 each year – only half as much as
correctional facility officers and jailers.”vi
Now, practice developing some Social Math of your own:
What data do you have to start with (your “big” number)? This number will become your
How could you make that number more relevant to your audience? Write some ideas down below
how you could you break that number down by time, place, localized reference, ironic
comparison, or a comparison to familiar things.
What number now becomes your denominator?
What number do you end up with after doing the math?
Can you make this number any smaller or more relevant to your audience? How?
i New York Times. 2000. Opinion: A Metropolis of Poor Children. New York Times, August 17
ii Berkeley Media Studies Group. 2003. Making the Case for Early Care and Education: A Message Development Guide for Advocates.
iii Hunt M. 2003. Local middle schools combat obesity with healthier lunches. San Diego Union-Tribune, April 23
iv Parker-Pope T. 2007. Soda Makers to Disclose Caffeine Content on Labels. The Wall Street Journal, February 27, p. D1
v California Center for Public Health Advocacy. 2013. Soda Facts. http://www.kickthecan.info/soda-facts
vi Berkeley Media Studies Group. 2003. Making the Case for Early Care and Education: A Message Development Guide for Advocates.