Five children around the world die every minute because of chronic malnutrition.
Source: Associated Press article
How long did you contemplate this fact? Can you translate numbers into faces? Did you question its accuracy? What does it mean to you and the life you lead?
Nonprofits, humanitarian organizations and development agencies are infamous for splashing statistics across their websites and outreach materials. These attempts to quantify global human rights issues are necessary for strategic planning, funding and program evaluation. However, they do little in the way of provoking a level of empathy that translates into individual action. Numbers are impersonal.
Shankar Vedantam best explains our penchant for helping a single stranger over a large group of strangers in his article, The Little Lost Dog at Sea. Using the example of an internationally backed rescue mission to save a dog abandoned at sea, Vedantam posits that the same outpouring of support would not have happened if there had been, say, 100 dogs onboard. We are more likely to help when the issue is presented on a scale we can cope with, one that promises a moral sense of return. Getting at the ineffectiveness of large-scale humanitarian statistics, Vendantam explains:
Our empathic telescopes are activated when we hear a single cry for help….When we think of human suffering on a mass scale, our telescope does not work, because it has not been designed to work in such situations. Humans are the only species that is even aware of large-scale suffering taking place in distant lands; the moral telescope in our brain has not had a chance to evolve and catch up with our technological advances.
Consider all the statistic-laden reports that humanitarian groups pump out annually on maternal health, water borne illnesses, genital mutilation, etc. A majority of this data remains buried in Excel tables.
[Enter data visualization tools] (more…)