Telling Stories with Numbers”
Presentation to the Agora Planning Journal Salon
Ann Arbor, MI
Nov 5, 2015
Prof. Scott D. Campbell, Urban Planning Program, University of Michigan


Thank you to Mikah and the rest of the AGORA staff for this opportunity.  Agora has been going for 10 years, and it’s a great institution, journal, web page, activity.  I wish you a great year.

My charge is to answer the question:  how do you tell a story through the use of data?  (I will avoid using Powerpoint, which I use too much for my day job, and this is an evening of story telling, so let me tell some stories.)

Let’s start with Harper’s Magazine, which started in 1850, and in 1984 introduced the Harper’s Index (and its new executive editor, Michael Pollan), a popular one page list of selected data.  Here are selected items from the current November, 2015 issue:

“Factor by which the rate of retraction of scientific papers has increased in the past four decades : 10
Portion of retractions that stem from fraud, plagiarism, or duplicate publications : 2/3
Percentage of Americans aged 18 to 34 who identify as millennials : 40
Who identify as baby boomers : 8
As members of the greatest generation : 8
Portion of U.S. college freshmen who rate themselves above average in academic aptitude : 7/10
Percentage by which the number of women graduating from college is expected to exceed the number of men in 2025 : 47
Percentage of U.S. mothers who have stopped working or switched to less challenging jobs in order to care for children : 62
Of U.S. fathers : 36
Portion of U.S. children aged six to eight who watch YouTube videos every day : 3/4
Percentage of U.S. adults with disabilities who lived in poverty when the Americans with Disabilities Act became law : 27
Who do today : 32
Percentage of married U.S. women who live in poverty : 7
Of unmarried U.S. women who do : 23
Amount that Carly Fiorina’s tenure as CEO of Hewlett-Packard cost the company’s shareholders : $55,200,000,000”


I will offer six bits of advice:

  1. Don't use data as decoration
  2. A little bit of data goes a long way
  3. Have the story drive the numbers, not the other way around.
  4. Use Numbers to play with the reader’s Expectations
  5. Surprise not just with numbers, but with the variables you pick
  6. Numbers can do a lot, but they can’t do everything

1. Don't use data as decoration

2. A little bit of data goes a long way
Avoid the temptations to…


3. Have the story drive the numbers, not the other way around.
Don’t just be a passive tour guide through the forest of your data, saying “Table 1 shows this, Table 2 shows that, etc.”   Develop the story line and use the data to highlight, illustrate, provide evidence for your story line.  This does not mean to write your conclusion first and then find the data to support your story — though that is unfortunately often done.  [I had a grad school friend who worked for an unnamed economics professor who told the student:  here is my draft article:  find the data to support my conclusions.]
Instead, be open to the data and to surprises.  If you are a detective then the data is the evidence and the clues (be it data you found from the census, collected from surveys, from GIS analysis, from remote sensors, etc.).  But then, like Sherlock Holmes or Lisbeth Salander, you are in the driver’s seat and have to craft a coherent story, considering and rejecting rival explanations, and identifying the central characters.

4. Use Numbers to play with the reader’s expectations
Take advantage of the audience’s expectations:  use data to both confirm their knowledge and expectations (e.g., overall living costs in San Francisco are much higher than in Detroit, and then also surprise and challenge expectations (As a percent of income, San Francisco is still a more affordable place to live than Detroit.  HUD’s Location affordability index:  what percent of family income spent on housing and transportation?  San Francisco:  43%;  Detroit:  49%.)  Good writing often navigates that borderline between affirming what the reader already knows and then pushing the reader into new and strange (and often uncomfortable) territory.   If your data simply confirms and replicates what we already know, then we ask:  “so what”?   If the data is wholly strange and without context or connections to the world we know, then we have no entry to it.  So both affirm and surprise.  Just don’t distort or omit data because it conflicts with your story line.

5. Surprise not just with numbers, but with the variables you pick:
Don't just choose the numbers, but also the variables.  A creative way to use data is not just to look for interesting or unexpected values of conventional variables (e.g., poverty, population density, housing starts, income) but unexpected but revealing variables

6. Finally, Numbers can do a lot, but they can’t do everything
Not everything can be measured and converted to data.   Some argue that if you can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist.  But new phenomena may be hard to count, things fall between the cracks of different categories, phenomena that are currently too small to measure (but one day will be important).  Sometimes this means that no secondary data is available and you have to collect the numbers on your own.  But often quantitative data is just not the right format.  Sometimes you need narration, maps and design to tell a story.