Showing posts with label Data Journalism. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Data Journalism. Show all posts

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Colombia's national agricultural strike can use some facts and numbers to aid the public discussions

Today, there is the largest yet march in the cities of Colombia during the country's nationwide agricultural paro (strike) by the campesinos (farmers). It's been 10 days so far. Students (suspending classes), truck drivers, health workers, together with miners, potato and other small farmers, coffee growers will all march today. The situation is fairly grave. You can read about the demands of the farmers here, but in summary, they are asking for financial help from the government for seeds, fertilisers, fuel and highway tolls. (FYI: Colombia's highway toll costs have been the highest in our year-long South America trip so far.)

Photo source: &, screen captures from here and here

A lot of emotions, but how much is all this financial help?

Not clear.

All the reporting by newspapers like this, this and this, only ever talk about whether the farmers and the government have reached an agreement, that the road block continues, that the food prices are rising due to shortage, that there are more blocks and marches, etc. Nothing concrete about how much all this financial help amounts to, not even a summarised high level figure.

Minimum: half a million US dollars.

The best I could gather was from this article, that the government has asked for 1 billion pesos (~half million USD) to be added to the agricultural budget. My best guess is that this is the minimum, because Colombia is not that expensive, but it's not that cheap either. Nothing on the news can tell me what the range of this ballpark figure could be though.

More likely: 20 million US dollars.
As this article suggests that earlier this year when there was a one-day strike by the farmers, this is the amount the government promised, but never materialised.

Note: none of the figures above says the time period. Is it over a year, or many years? No clue.
Also note the large range between the two figures.

Facts and numbers can help bring neutrality to the conflict.

As an outsider, there appears to be strong popular support for the farmers in the country, all based on sentiments though. It is a us the people versus them the government situation. 

There is very little facts and figures being discussed. Had the government analysed the costs of the agricultural financial help being asked for, and let the people know the consequences and the financial size of the negotiation talks, people would then have an idea to what degree their government can afford to help the farmers. These farmers are indeed quite poor, so images of their leathery and sunken faces shrouded in an earthy poncho arouse a lot of sympathy from the media and social media. 

Without concrete numbers, people are acting solely on emotions. Instead of posing the question, "can we as a nation help the farmers, and how much", it is instead a finger pointing exercise by the people to the government that they have forgotten about the country's farmers. The government has next to no sympathy from the people. Aggressive riots continue that are met by hoards of police in full riot gear. Bloody conflicts pursue day after day. People are getting angrier. There is only black and white, us and them in the story. No neutrality.

Is the government missing a great opportunity to introduce changes to its tax system?

In my opinion, this is a great opportunity for the government to do small step changes in its tax system. That is, IF they can outline the costs involved for the financial help to the farmers, so that the people can understand the consequences. Since there is strong popular support for the farmers, and assuming the government runs the country with money from taxation of the people it serves, the government should be asking the Colombian people to fund the farmer's agricultural activities through taxation.

The country's economy is growing a lot, despite a biased international image of a dangerous drug land. Its city people have a relatively high standard of living compared to its neighbours in South America. As tourists, we feel its prices and infrastructure is comparable to countries like Chile and Argentina. As the country grows more, its tax system is going to need reforms to fund all the nation's spendings, as it is relatively low right now compared to western standards. I cannot think of a better opportunity to introduce such changes. That said, there is a lot I don't know about the country!

Finally, where are the road blocks? Can I get around?

Read this list, updated daily.

Nope, there is no map.

I'm thankful for the information provided by the helpful service #767. At a glance though, without knowing the country's cities and towns super well, I struggle to know whether there are any open roads towards my destination.

Neither do I have a visual context of the scale of the road blocks.

As we sit here in Bogota, Colombia, totally stuck and unable to leave the capital due to rubber-tire-burning and rocky-fallen-tree-stumps road blocks setup by protesting farmers, we are selfishly annoyed by the disturbance to our year-long South American trip in a mini, self-made casa rodante (house on wheels). We don't want to risk driving through these road blocks, as our friends on the road had firsthand experience going through them. Although they pleaded their way through the blocks ultimately safely, they did also report incidents of rock throwing, tire puncturing, window breaking, etc., done to other cars. Some Colombians say the farmers won't do anything to us and our car, since we are foreigners, but tense conflicts do not always afford reasons. Therefore, we're waiting it out on our friend's couch.

Photo source:, screen captures from here

Special thanks to Angela, William, Julian and Sergio for generously accommodating us in and around Bogota. Colombians are such kind and generous people, helping us completely out of the blue, and in this case, accommodating us simply having met us in hotels or on the roads. Thank you. I wish for peace in your country.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

7.2% raise for 1,000 best paid Ontario public sector employees

The top 1,000 employees with the highest package (salary + taxable benefits) in the Ontario Public Sector Salary Disclosure, the so-called “Sunshine List”, saw an average increase of almost $25,000 in 2012 compared to the previous year, an increase of 7.2%, much higher than the bottom half of the 80,000-strong list which saw an increase of only 2.2%.

Is this cause for alarm? Highly paid CEO's are fully in the public spotlight, and the many many school principals have their pay closely monitored, but what about the highly paid individuals near, but not at the top? The data shows that for them, 2012 was a good year.

Every year since 1996, the Ontario Ministry of Finance has released a list of all public sector employees who earned more than $100,000 in the previous year.


We can all see that “Sunshine List” champion Thomas Mitchell, President & CEO of Ontario Power Generation took a pay cut this year, but with approaching 100,000 names on the list, more sophisticated, data-drive oversight is possible.

Government-friendly observes point out that the average salary on the list has decreased, just like last year, but that is a red herring. Anyone can add over 9,000 people earning just over $100k to a list with an average salary of $129k and bring down the average. As the list continues to grow from the bottom, we can expect the average salary to decline, without this being any indicator of public fiscal discipline.

Opposition partisans will lament the increasing growth of the list, 9,000 more this year and 7,500 the year before. This is again misleading. The pyramid shape of any organisation tells us that there are more people as you move down the salary brackets. With a perfectly reasonable average salary growth at just over 2.5%, 9,600 employees graduated to the “Sunshine List” this year after having earned around $98k last year. Probably more than 9,600 employees, currently earning around $98k will be new additions to the list next year, and more the year after. Inflation and economic growth will ensure that the list grows, and the pyramid shape will ensure that it grows faster.

Top 1,000

So who are these lucky 1,000 who on average made 7.2% more in 2012?

This year the top 1000 best packages on the list included:
  • 583 individuals working in hospitals
    • 176 Pathologists
    • 50 Chief Executive Officers
    • 66 Vice-Presidents (Senior, Executive, etc.)
    • 79 Psychiatrists
  • 86 employees in electricity
    • 56 Vice-Presidents (Senior, Executive, etc.)
  • 144 working at Universities
    • 100 Professors
Big raises

Of the 1,000, 737 can be matched exactly by name and organisation type to last year. 92 of those fortunate souls saw an increase of over 25%! At the top of the pack was Mohamed Abelaziz Elbestawi, Vice-President Research/Professor at McMaster University who was reported as paid salary $266k in 2011 and $506k in 2012! Trung Kien Mai, a Pathologist at The Ottawa Hospital saw his paid salary move from $306k in 2011 to $515k in 2012!

Of those 92 with big raises:
  • 83 work in hospitals
    • 50 are Pathologists
More questions

At this point, this analysis raises more questions than it answers, but that is to be expected from an analysis of this salary disclosure data. The Public Salary Disclosure Act can help us find questions, not answers. What we do know is that:
  • Salaries near the top grew substantially
  • Those salaries grew much more, even on a % basis than those at the bottom
  • Growth was higher than expected given slow economic growth
  • Some individuals can be shown to have experienced extraordinary raises
  • Pathologists do well, and 2012 was a particularly good year for some


Saturday, April 28, 2012

Data Journalism

I've recently started following the Guardian's Data Blog, but I was a little disappointed with their recent article on grammar schools inthe UK.

My understanding is that grammar schools are a subset of schools in the UK that supposedly offer entry on a meritocratic basis and deliver higher quality education. Depending on your political leanings you either believe that grammar schools re-enforce the class division in the UK by giving entry disproportionately to the already higher class and then giving them a better education or you believe that grammar schools enable class mobility by delivering a better education to bright lower class students who would not otherwise afford such a thing. As an outsider in the UK I’m not qualified to hold an opinion here, but I suspect that naturally each extreme fails to appreciate some nuanced details.

The article appears to have pulled off a classic journalist's ploy:
  1. Present a statistical analysis of the data in a leading way without drawing conclusions
  2. Quote somebody else's opinion on the topic

Essentially you can deliver opinion supported by the apparent full weight of objective statistical analysis without having to put your name to the conclusions which might not hold up to rigorous challenge.

Notice also that one of the opinions is much stronger than the other. Notice also that Rosemary Joyce's note has very complex implications which are not at all explored for the reader. Even I’m not sure if she has a point.

I could offer a very different view of the same data:
  •  14 of 32 schools favoured those not privately educated, giving fewer than 6% of offers to the privately educated
  • Taking 24 of the 32 schools (3/4) with the lowest privately educated proportions, the average was 6%, the same as the overall population
  • Removing the two clear outliers in the data, "Tonbridge Grammar School", "The Judd School" overall the privately educated averaged to 8.9%

I feel the key fact I’m missing is: What % of students in Kent who scored well on the 11-plus exam were privately educated? How does this compare to the 10.89%? How does this compare to the 8.9% removing outliers? Is there a social bias in the offers?

I’m also missing any information about how these numbers have been changing with time. Simon Murphy complains that the government is not taking steps to improve the chances of poor children, and yet for all I know that 10.89% was maybe 12% last year.

What about this “local context” anyhow? How do these percentages compare at a lower level of granularity that county-wide? How do these percentages compare to applications?

Is this a story of a county-wide bias, or just the story of two bad apples and handful of not-so-good-ones? I think I know what The Guardian wants me to think. Data Journalism is still Journalism I suppose.

For my readers, I ask, why do you suppose the 10.89% number is the only one in the text of the article to two decimal places?