Where do you live on Dollar Street?

Are you bamboozled by the daily pandemic statistics of your country? Or have you even tuned out? These numbers are designed to be super clear, and help us understand the current spread of COVID-19 around us. They are supposed to influence our behaviour in the right way. Understanding the facts and drawing consequences from them is however hard when these facts have to compete with our own knowledge, gained from personal experience.

It may seem obvious that finding and understanding the facts is even more crucial when you are a researcher. Good education and solid experience can teach you what research methodology to use, and how to avoid pitfalls in research. But also existing knowledge of a researcher about a topic can still push the research in a direction that sits comfortably within the researcher’s current understanding of the world. How capable are you to step away from that? 

Test your knowledge of the SDGs

Our understanding of the world outside our circles can be severely biased too, in particular when it originates from the media. The media do not give equal attention to everything that happens in the world. In particular extreme events and situations are over represented. This can seriously distort our understanding of the world. However, we do not always realise that. When you take the quiz on the state of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, you will probably learn that the world is a different place than you thought it was. Gapminder.org created this quiz to demonstrate ten pitfalls we easily fall into when considering the state of the world we are living in. In the book Factfulness, published by the founders of Gapminder, these ten are explained in detail. The authors provide advice on how to avoid these pitfalls. 

The example that gave the title to the organisation is the ‘gap instinct’: the extremes and the huge gap in between these extremes that gets most attention in the media (e.g. the poorest and the richest people). But the vast majority of people actually live in between these extremes. So, here’s the first tip of the authors of the book: when you encounter extremes, go look for the majority. Is it actually filling the presumed gap? Then there is no gap. Society is not split between the poor and the rich. Most people are in the middle.


Everyday life stories 

Factfulness has nine more of these things we intuitively get wrongly most of the time, mostly due to over-dramatised information that reaches us far more often than mundane stories. Those stories from everyday life are exactly the ones that we focus on in much of the design research we do at STBY. What is people’s behaviour around going to the toilet, is perhaps one of the most mundane questions to ask. STBY explored this recently, in two countries, for a client. It is a topic you would not read about in your news app. Still these topics are really important to explore if we want to move beyond the extremes and avoid all the other pitfalls the book Factfulness lists. 

The Gapminder team brilliantly added a visual, an experience-based flipside, to their facts and numbers based origin: Dollar Street. The concept is a street where everyone in the world lives together, from the poorest on one side to the richest at the other end. Every family is photographed in exactly the same way, taking more than a hundred photos, including from their toilets. This brings the numbers and facts, about the SDGs for instance, to live and allows visitors to Dollar Street to step into the shoes of the people living in rather different circumstances than most of us readers of this post do.

I can recommend using Dollar Street to put a face to research insights that are coming from numbers and desk research. Much of the research we do at STBY involves talking to participants. We systematically collect their experiences, often as stories. But if you do not have the opportunity to speak to people directly, illustrations from Dollar Street may help to make your data and insights more acceptable. Dollar Street can help to show the everyday reality behind the numbers, in particular when living in rather different parts of Dollar Street yourself, with the media bringing you mostly stories from the far ends of Dollar Street.

And for a deeper understanding of how much effort people around the world must put into stopping the spread of COVID-19, you might want to check how everyone washes their hands. That may add a little more human perspective to the daily corona statistics 

Rosling, H., Rosling, O., Rosling Roennlund, A. (2018). Factfulness: Ten reasons we’re wrong about the world – and why things are better than you think. Flatiron Books, New York.

Bas Raijmakers