What’s left out can shape the story

Here’s the danger of data without context

This is from our weekly Discourse newsletter. Make sure to share it and subscribe here.

If you ask someone how they’re doing and they say, “an eight,” you might think they’re doing pretty well. . . assuming the scale was out of 10. But what if it was out of 100? Or a billion?

Data without enough context is dangerous.

That was one of the take-aways in a discussion on ethics and data this week with Bonnie Healy, executive director of the Alberta First Nations Information Governance Centre, Bryan Jackson of Data for Good, and Nasma Ahmed the director of Digital Justice Lab, who spoke on a panel I moderated at Together 2018, a symposium on fostering collaboration and innovation around the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

What gets left out can be influenced by entrenched bias, Nasma says, so it’s really important to “think about who collected [the data] and what questions they asked.”

Like when data just shows that Black students are doing poorly in Toronto schools but doesn’t ask why the schools are more likely to stream and suspend them, rather than support them. Or when articles like this list First Nations in major debt but don’t mention that some of the same nations had to declare a state of emergency from major flooding.

Do you have other examples of angles omitted from stories that changed the way people saw those stories? Send me an email and I’ll share some examples in your next newsletter.

Did you hear?

  • Check out this cool interactive that shows how rising temperatures are forcing marine life deeper and farther north in search of cooler waters. (Life below water is one of the UN’s 17 SDGs.)
  • Need some inspiration to love your commute? Check out this blog by Edith Zimmerman. (Sustainable cities and communities is another SDG.)
  • Here’s a data project by Data For Good, in collaboration with Vancouver’s Pivot Legal Society, that shows how laws in Vancouver are excluding sex workers from health care and support services. (Another SDG theme is to reduce inequality.)
  • On a non-SDG-related note, here’s journalist Melissa Chan’s twitter thread on a recent White House decision to revoke CNN reporter Jim Acosta’s press pass.


In last week’s newsletter, we asked you for any organizations tracking hate incidents across Canada. You shared some of these great resources with us.

The Canadian Anti-Hate Network is an independent, nonprofit organization of experts and researchers that monitors hate groups and hate crimes. According to them, “there are over 130 active right-wing extremist groups in Canada.”

The Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) has data on hate crimes around the world, including Canada. According to the ODIHR, there were 1,409 hate crimes reported by police in Canada in 2016.

Here are B’nai Brith Canada’s audits of anti-Semitic incidents for 2016 and 2017. According to their findings, “there were 327 incidents of anti-Semitic vandalism in 2017, a record high dating back to 2013 and a 107% increase from 2016.”

No More Silence is working to develop a  network “to support the work being done by activists, academics, researchers, agencies and communities to stop the murders and disappearances of Indigenous women.”

Stop Racism and Hate Canada is an online site where you can report hate incidents.

The Canadian Race Relations Foundation describes itself as a non-partisan agency trying to help eliminate racism and racial discrimination.

This report, titled Poisoning Democracy: How Canada Can Address Harmful Speech Online, was published this week by the Public Policy Forum to address the rise of harmful speech online and how it’s “a threat to Canada’s democracy,” and how “governments and digital platform companies can better address hate and harassment, including the creation of a Moderation Standards Council.”

Finally, if you see some hate graffiti, sometimes all you need is some good old-fashioned paint!

Updates from the Scarborough team.

Although Scarborough, Ontario is often associated with news reports of crime and grime, its residents point out that their community is filled with art and nature.

Our Scarborough team is tackling stereotypes: reality versus perception. We’re asking residents of this vibrant Greater Toronto Area community to highlight which stereotypes they’re most frustrated with. Tell us what tired Scarboroughisms you want us to fact-check.

If you want to help us challenge the stereotypes in your community, we invite you to become a member of The Discourse. As a member, you’ll get to go behind the scenes of our editorial process and make an impact by contributing to our investigations. Sign up here. [end]


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