Numbers Without Context Mean Nothing

Did you know the size of the US Debt is closing in on thirteen trillion dollars?  And now that you know that, does that mean anything to you?  Probably not.  Numbers on such an astro-physical scale have a numbing sameness.

But the, when someone goes on to say that to pay the debt, all 308, 442, 403 Americans would each have to cough up $42, 128.81, well, then it starts to ring home just how in hock we are.

Element 79 Chicago Advertising Dennis Ryan
THAT'S how big the Gulf of Mexico oil spill is...

Context is critical to understanding data.  Which is why I’m a sucker for a good info graphic.  Yesterday, I found a website that showed the size of the oil spill off Louisiana by projecting it over the geography of twelve major US cities.  For some reason, this site skipped Chicago but a link makes it simple to use Google Earth and create your own relative impact map over whatever geography you choose.

What no photo of oil-slicked water and no description of a broken pipe spilling can convey, this graphic can.  Powerfully and memorably.  Even with so vast an impact, the context is personal. And that makes all the difference.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79


3 thoughts on “Numbers Without Context Mean Nothing

  1. Eric Van Fossen says:

    Really enjoy and appreciate the thoughts here. On the topic of ‘context’ here’s a nice presentation on how valuable context can be in improving simple signage (the ones most of us ignore daily) via Daniel Pink of WiredMag@

    I’m not sure there’s any hope for contextualizing those Enterprise epics.

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