Lies, damned lies and statistics!

Statistics are meant to be used, and these days with access to the World Wide Web, we all can get access to amazing statistics easily. But it seems to me if you are not careful you may be using statistics that are incomplete,   terribly out of date, and of course some are simply not available!  And then there are the others that make one wonder who would ever need them!

Which underground metro do you think carries the most passengers? London? New York? Tokyo? Mexico City? Paris?  Beijing? Hong Kong? No! Seoul is the correct answer with 2 and half BILLION passengers a year.

Seoul Metropolitan Subway 2.518 billion 2011
Moscow Metro 2.39 billion
Tokyo Metro 2.27 billion
Beijing Subway 2.18 billion
New York City Subway 1.644 billion
Paris Métro 1.524 billion
Mexico City Metro 1.487 billion
Hong Kong Mass Transit Railway 1.482 billion
London Underground 1.171 billion

And Australia?   Melbourne’s Metro carries 228 million a year and in 2011 CityRail in Sydney carried 299 million which I calculate as .01% of the passengers carried in Seoul!!!

By the way a more dramatic way of thinking about the passenger density in some of these cities, is to think of the staff they have to employ!!!

In Japan they employ OSHIYA – I.E. PUSHERS.  Fancy putting that on your CV?  A Pusher  They were originally called “passenger arrangement staff”  and are still used in rush hour at the big stations according to a Japanese friend who tells me they “push the bums or  breasts or any parts  in order to get the passengers into the carriage – which he appropriately pronounces as “cage” .  Pushers according to Wikipedia are needed when trains are at around 120% capacity and definitely when they are over 200% of the trains capacity!!  Have you been “pushed” lately?

The OECD is an impressive organisation and you will be pleased to know  the OECD has collected statistics on who are the fastest and slowest eaters!

  • Americans spend 1 hour and 14 minutes eating each day.
  • Turks are the slowest eaters, spending an average of 2 hours and 42 minutes eating per day.
  • The French also take their time at the table, spending an average of 2 hours and 15 minutes there daily.

The OECD also measures how we spend our time each day –

  • The French spend most time on personal care  which includes sleep!!

Only Mexico, France, Japan, New Zealand and Turkey spend less time than Australians do on leisure. The Germans, Norwegians and Fins spend most time on leisure per day!!!

Visiting and entertaining friends is highest in Turkey 34% and lowest 3% in Australia. I am sure you all agree this is really useful data for the OECD to collect.

The European Space Agency has an amazing reputation for space related matters.  Not so long ago the ESDA reported that:

“A little-known asteroid will skim past Earth on 15 February (2013) , passing just 28 000 km from our planet. The 50 m-diameter chunk of space rock was discovered last year by ESA-sponsored amateur astronomers in Spain.

Its composition is unknown and its mass is thought to be of the order of 130 000 tonnes.

What is known is that it will not impact Earth anytime soon.

So I suppose it is not surprising that the ESA has calculated that:

“There are approximately half a million pieces of space junk in orbit around Earth that measure at least half an inch (1.27 centimeters) wide.”

How do they measure ½ billion bits of junk down to half an inch?

“Occasionally, one of these pieces re-enters Earth’s atmosphere, and if it doesn’t burn up during re-entry, it crash-lands somewhere on the planet’s surface. HeinerKlinkrad, head of the European Space Agency’s Orbital Debris Office, calculated that there’s a one-in-100-billion chance that you’ll be severely injured by a falling piece of space junk this year. In the course of a 75-year lifetime, then, the odds you’ll get hurt by falling space debris are a little less than one in 1 billion.”

At the other end of the scale perhaps, one global company has carried out a “Global Remote Control Trends Study” – yes TV remotes! Logitech claims to be an innovative Swiss company that makes gadgets like remotes and “mouses” or “mice” for computers.

In Logitech’s study they revealed where lost remotes can be found:

  • 49 percent in the sofa
  • 8 percent in the bathroom
  • 8 percent in a dresser drawer
  • 4 percent in the fridge/freezer
  • 2 percent outside or in the car!

On a more serious note, as  a researcher I have frequently needed to hunt for accurate and current statistics both in Australia and elsewhere.

Back in the 1980’s when working for ACI, just when the company had made a huge investment in a joint coal venture with R. W. Miller and Mitsui, the library was being threatened with closure.  Some senior executives thought a “library” is only for fiction and children.   So I was asked to interview various heads of divisions including the head of the new ACI Resources.  “No” he said “we don’t need a library.  I need statistics on the predicted demand for coking coal for steel manufacture over the next 20 years”. As I offered to look for those forecasts his parting shot was “And I don’t want to wait too long for them.” This was way before the WWW you will recall. In our Melbourne business library, I turned to Dialog and the Predicast forecasts database and was relieved to find  ithad fantastic statistics on the topic  from various reputable organisations – the Swedish Institute for Steel Construction, the American Iron and Steel Institute and others.  They were all predicting a declining demand for coking coal for steel manufacture of about 10% just when ACI had made such a huge investment. The Managing Director of ACI Resources snatched the report from my hand with a gruff acknowledgement and I never heard from him again. Within a year or so the company was taken over in a hostile takeover.  What a pity those statistics were not sought BEFORE the investment was made!  How many decisions are made today in organisations with special libraries where the library research staff are not asked to provide information for making the most informed decisions simply because some executives do not know themselves how to find the information and don’t know how skilled searchers can find critical information quickly from reliable sources?

About that time,  I became a huge fan of a fantastic system TradStat developed by Datastar in Switzerland.  This amazing service collected 90% of world trade statistics from customs authorities in most countries around the world – imports and exports, volumes, various currencies. We could even convert the data into the currencies of our choice  e.g. US$ and to the weight of our choice e.g. tonnes or tons. So for example, for a consultant working on an export market planning exercise for Queensland bananas, we could search Tradstat and deliver a report showing the largest exporters of bananas by country into Europe showing tonnages and prices from various countries. And we could easily convert those statistics into graphs in various formats – line graphs, bar graphs, pie charts etc.   Sadly the Australian and New Zealand governments refused to cooperate with Tradstat and today I believe it may be  owned by a German service FizTechnik so it can be  used by the Europeans but not so easily accessible to us in Australia.

And then what do we do when there are no statistics to be had? Perhaps we have to compile them ourselves!   It is incredibly boring going through a year’s supply of about 20 women’s magazines and food magazines page by page  counting advertisements and counting recipes for beef, lamb, pork, chicken and fish in the Australian market and then producing pie charts using Excel.   But it was a useful way for one of our clients to measure how successful opposing marketing authorities were promoting their products in their target markets with recipes placed in lieu of ads.

It was more interesting examining various business press articles online or hard copy for global reputation measurement reports.  We were a subcontractor for a US company Delahaye that measured positive and negative press coverage for competitors, identifiedkey issues, key markets, key personnel, key strengths, key weaknesses, and then produced very sophisticated charts for big global companies. It was fascinating feeding the data into the special software supplied to us and seeing the various measurements in graphic form produced.

These days many organisations – government agencies at both the Federal and State levels, associations and companies – make statistics available on the Web.   And there are some wonderful examples in our country – ABS – NFF- ASX – ABARE  and so on.

I do feel it necessary to make a comment about health statistics.  The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) is a major national agency set up by the Australian Government in 1987, and responsible for collecting statistics on health matters.

Reflecting our federation I guess, the States also fund organisations to collect health data, as do various health associations and some university departments.  A few years ago when asked to locate statistics on a long list of health issues such as heart diseases, hip replacements, colorectal cancer, plastic surgery, I found many organisations were collecting and publishing statistics on cancer or heart diseases. But I found it incredibly difficult to find common elements in the data being collected.  And it was equally difficult to find up to date comprehensive statistics on the less common health issues such as hydrocephalus in children.  Sometimes the only statistics I could find were based on the Busselton Health Study and they finished in 1994/5.    No one as I recall was collecting statistics on the number of plastic and/or cosmetic surgery operations undertaken in Australia each year.  No one seemed to know how many breast enlargements or reductions are undertaken or noses altered.  So this means the statistics used to make decisions in Australia in the health industry are sometimes not available or they are out of date and given the amount of duplication and hence duplicated product costs,  I think this is disappointing.

So I agree with Mark Twain – figures are beguiling!  They can amuse you, frighten you, inform you, help you, challenge your views, and mislead you if you are not careful!!!!  And sometimes they are not there at all!


Elizabeth Swan

Web Search Pacific Pty Ltd (formerly Information Edge)

PO Box 364 Rose Bay, 2029

Tel. 61 2 9371 0300

Mob. 0412 734 403


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