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COMMENT: My top 3 discoveries at the UN data fest

Over 1,500 statisticians, researchers, academics, civil society leaders, nerds - and me - converged on Cape Town last week. We all had one thing on our mind: data.

The first United Nations World Data Forum brought together people from more than 100 countries to discuss how we can track and monitor the sustainable development goals.

Many of the 17 sustainable development goals cover issues that are the bread and butter of Africa Check’s work.

We regularly fact-check claims about poverty, hunger, health, education, gender inequality, economic growth, energy and infrastructure. The statistics produced to monitor these goals feeds our daily work.

The four-day forum was jam-packed with presentations from new and exciting projects from around the world. Here were the top three that caught my attention.

Flowminder: Using cell phone data to track migration

There are two things that make Africa Check staffers happy: cake day and new data. We’re lucky to have cake every Thursday. Fresh data is harder to come by.

Censuses, which offer the most detailed data, are usually produced every ten years. Household surveys are conducted more regularly. In South Africa, we get new data every year but it’s still 6 months old by the time you look at it.

The dream of most researchers (and journalists) is to know where people are and what they are doing right now.

Flowminder, a registered non-profit organisation in Sweden, is doing just that. They collect and analyse anonymous cell phone data, along with traditional satellite and household survey data.

Zanzibar’s government wanted to understand the feasibility of eliminating malaria on the island. An important part of this was understanding how people move between the island and the Tanzanian mainland. This is because people infected with the malaria parasite are infectious to local mosquitoes. They pose a challenge to any malaria elimination plan.

Using cell-phone data, Flowminder was able to map and understand how people move between Tanzania and Zanzibar. This data was used to estimate the first “malaria importation rate” for Zanzibar in 2008.

This and other data revealed that eliminating malaria would be costly but that a reduction in transmission in Tanzania would have a knock-on effect in Zanzibar, reducing both costs and the need for substantial interventions.

Dollar Street: Photographing how people live

Statistics can appear pretty cold and lifeless in a spreadsheet. Statisticians sometimes try to spice them up with graphs or infographics. But at the end of the day, you’re still looking at numbers.

A website called Dollar Street lets you take a look at the people behind the numbers. Photographers have visited over 200 homes in almost 50 countries to take photos of up to 135 objects. The photos are then tagged, by function and income level, so that you can see what it means to live on US$34 per month in Zimbabwe, US$27 in Burundi or US$3,268 in Kenya.

You can compare children’s toys from households around the world. Take a look at how plates of food differ depending on where you live and what you earn. You can even peek into people’s bathrooms. Or you can take a look at where people store their drinking water.

“We want to show how people really live. It seemed natural to use photos as data so people can see for themselves what life looks like on different income levels,” says Dollar Street founder Anna Rosling Rönnlund.

“Dollar Street lets you visit many, many homes all over the world. Without travelling.”

Gapminder: Are you smarter than a chimpanzee?

How much do you know about development statistic? Hopefully if you’re a regular Africa Check reader then it’s a bit more than the average.

Gap Minder’s Ignorance Project exposes what the public knows and doesn’t know about basic global patterns and trends.

Their Basic Global Facts Test asks 10, seemingly simple, questions to gauge how little or how much you know about the world.

For example, how many years did women who are currently 30 years old spend in school? The potential answers were 3 years, 5 years and 7 years. (Hint: Men of the same age spent 8 years in school.)

Ola Rosling revealing that we're not that smart.

Most people who took the test in Sweden (45%) thought a 30 year old woman had on average only spent 3 years in school. In America, 52% thought it was 5 years. At a TED Talk, nearly 50% thought it was only 3 years.

The correct answer is 7 years. (Chimpanzees were found to score highest when they took the test.)

Why does this misconception matter?

“If we have the impression that no girls are going to school then people might lose hope. The challenge is too big. The chance is that nothing will change,” Ola Rosling, one of Gapminder’s founders, told us at the data forum.

Gapminder uses the results from the test to identify weak spots in the public's knowledge. They then develop teaching materials to correct misconceptions and misunderstandings.

Are you smarter than a chimpanzee? Take the Basic Global Facts Test here.

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