Donata Columbro: “Knowing how to read data to change the world (for the better)”

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We use and read them every day: in the charts, in the maps, in the news in the newspapers, even in the nutritional tables of the foods we buy. And we produce them, too: when we open the weather app or pedometer, when we choose a song on Spotify or post something on Instagram. The data is all around us. And they speak to us, as long as you know their language. To teach it in a simple and engaging way is Donata Columbro, journalist, head of the Dataninja School and now in the bookstore with I’ll explain the data (Fifth Fourth Editions).

Taking an interest in numbers and graphics may not seem easy or tempting, but Columbro is ready to deny any prejudice: the “language of data” is within everyone’s reach and can excite us, simplify our lives and change our outlook on the world.

«In approaching the data we can also have fun», Columbro assures on the phone, with a voice that betrays a smile, «We can understand something about ourselves, study our behavior and observe the world in a different way». I’ll explain the data was also born with this spirit: the informative part is accompanied by short practical files, in style bullet journal, with exercises that invite you to collect and analyze some data starting from your daily life. “It’s a book to read with the felt-tip pen next to it,” he adds.

How did you come to deal with data?
«Mine was not a linear path. I studied International Relations and Human Rights Protection in Turin, because my idea was to deal with international cooperation and work in an NGO. However, I felt a strong desire to do a different type of work: not in the field, but more tied to the story of certain aspects of the countries I was studying. So I turned to journalism. At the university I also attended statistics laboratories and in which data sources were analyzed to create cooperation projects, and it was precisely the data that helped me to understand that the southern hemisphere could be described in a different way. In fact, looking at the numbers, these countries did not always emerge as places where all conditions were necessarily worse. I found this theme in Hans Rosling, a Swedish physician and statistician who used data as a kind of therapy, to tell people that the way is better than what we think. He used the term factfullness: a data-driven awareness that can also make us feel good. I liked this approach very much: I made it mine and applied it to the world of cooperation. Over the years, while I continued to be a journalist and to deal with campaigns and activism, I did not stop studying the issue of data and in 2018 I became a member of Dataninja and we opened the Dataninja School ».

Then came the #tispiegoildato column on Instagram.
«Given my background, I have always considered myself an outsider in the world of data and I wanted to involve other people as well. In autumn 2019 I started using my Instagram account to explain data, graphics and projects related to newspaper news: a sort of reasoned reading that turned out to be very beautiful and useful. I understood that the main problem, when it comes to topics of this type, is that people believe they cannot understand anything because they are not experts, and with the #tispiegoildato column on Instagram I aimed to bring them closer. Then there was the pandemic, which meant that this data-based work of mine was seen as an aid to understand the graphs and numbers we saw every day during the Civil Protection bulletin and in the newspapers ».

Its mission is to make people passionate about numbers and graphics. It doesn’t seem easy. What are the difficulties you encounter?
“After the months of the pandemic, it has actually become easier to make people understand that the data is about them. This sentence, said in autumn 2019, left us perplexed. What remains difficult is to convey the concept that data and numbers do not protect us from propaganda and fake news. An internal fact-checking mechanism must always be activated as regards both the source (how the data was constructed, who provided it …) and our internal biases. When a datum speaks to us, involves us and confirms our thesis, we tend to believe it to be true and immediately share it with enthusiasm. Actually, before we trust a certain number or a graph or not, we should ask ourselves some questions. It is difficult to put yourself in front of a given and judge it as if it were someone’s theory or opinion, but the point is that it could be ».

In fact, we tend to think of the data as always truthful and untouchable, while in reality it has limits. Which ones are they?
“Are so many. Behind a given there are human beings who decide what to measure. And whoever decides may have budget or time limits; he may have no interest in providing certain numbers to the public or he may have difficulty finding them because they are not easily accessible. Other limitations are the bias of who collects the data. An example: if I create a survey to highlight the side effects of a drug, but I don’t ask the explicit question “Have you noticed any problems in your menstrual cycle while taking this drug?”, I will never collect that data. It does not mean that that side effect does not exist: it simply has not been counted because no one, upstream, has thought about it ».

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