As with a lot of people, it used to be that when I heard words like 'mean average' or 'datasets' I wanted to crawl under a table and go to sleep. But one woman changed all that for me: her name is Mona Chalabi, and if I told you she’s your new favourite statistician, I know what you’d say. You’d say, “Sure! It’s not like I already had one.”
As a field, statistics has never had much widespread appeal, but Chalabi is fighting to show us the importance of stats through her day job as data editor at the Guardian US, Vagina Dispatches – her (Emmy-nominated!) documentary series – and a brand new podcast, out this month. If you don’t know her face, you will almost certainly recognise her hand-drawn graphs and infographics, which offer clear, concise, and often humorous visual representations of important stats. Some of this work has even gone viral, like a striking graph about America’s gender and race pay gap that was made out of folded dollar bills, or “Fourth of July”, her drawing of the American flag that demonstrated how the US population might look without women, immigrants and people of colour.
“That one was shared by the Women’s March and as a result, people like Iman and Miley Cyrus… not people you necessarily think of as into statistics,” she tells me down the phone from New York, where she lives.
Chalabi was born in east London to Arabic immigrant parents, and claims she doesn’t have a typical statistician’s background. She got an E in A-level maths, dropped out of her first degree in economics, and ended up studying international security in France. When she graduated, she went to work for an NGO, where her job was to count the number of internally displaced people and refugees in Iraq and publish reports on the numbers. She later moved to the US to work for Nate Silver, the American statistician who correctly predicted the winner of every single state in the 2012 US election.
“I feel really ambivalent about my background,” says Chalabi when I ask her about it. “Sometimes, I feel a little bit of a fraud but it also makes me better at what I do: because I don’t have a background in statistical algorithms, when I’m translating statistics to the public it makes me ask whether they make sense to me. I think when people are too advanced they struggle to explain what they’re thinking to someone else, whereas I want my drawings to be as simple as possible.” She is one of few women in the job, she tells me, and even fewer women of colour. Although she’s keen to emphasise that there are other female statisticians: “I’m not some kind of unicorn!”
The idea for illustrating stats came to Chalabi when she was – quote – “bored and miserable” at an old job about three years ago, and began to draw doodles that reflected the statistics in front of her. “A big part of my work is being transparent about the fact that numbers aren’t perfectly objective because I’m not perfectly objective and I am the person behind the computer,” she explains. “That’s the reason I hand-draw these charts, to remind people that ‘a real human did this’."
Now, in her job at the Guardian, she is mostly responsible for interpreting and disseminating stats related to the news cycle. “So when Hurricane Harvey happened, I was trying to research how bad it was compared to previous natural disasters,” she offers as an example. “For the most part it’s me going and looking for numbers. I get press releases that say ‘9 out of 10 women agree this face cream is fantastic’ or ‘electric cars are the future’, but I don’t really see writing that up as my job as a journalist."
In her excellent TED talk, “3 Ways to Spot a Bad Statistic”, Chalabi explains not only how to dodge statistical fake news, but also why we should care about data more broadly. “Government representatives never really speak on this, but they cut the funding to the [US] Census Bureau to the point where the accuracy of the statistics is compromised, and the director of the Census Bureau quit and he hasn’t been replaced,” she tells me.
“This is really worrying because the 2020 census is going to come around really fast. Counting how many people there are in the country might sound like it’s of little importance but it’s the kind of thing people should be marching in the street about because you completely change policy based on how you count those people.”
I ask for examples and Chalabi explains that there’s an effort in the US right now to stop counting how racially segregated cities are. “If you don’t have those statistics, advocates are going to be left saying, ‘We swear this is a problem, we just don’t have any evidence’, because how can advocates afford to collect numbers with that degree of precision and on that scale? This is why it’s so important that independent nonpartisan government officials do the work.”
I ask if anything similar is happening in the UK: “Not really, thank god. ‘Cause we have the Office for National Statistics.”
In Vagina Dispatches, a web series for the Guardian, Chalabi teamed up with ex-colleague and video producer Mae Ryan to use stats, illustrations and personal anecdotes to unmask some lesser discussed issues surrounding women’s sexual health, like the orgasm gap (between men and women). Her new podcast will work similarly. Titled Strange Bird, it’s a short-format Guardian podcast that reimagines data journalism for a mainstream audience.
“The idea is to tackle taboo topics through the lens of data,” Chalabi says excitedly. “It’s called Strange Bird because it’s looking at the things we don’t talk about or things that are statistically outliers.”
Each episode in the first season takes ‘family’ as its theme and will last about 20 minutes; Chalabi’s mum even features. “Whenever I do things with her people respond really positively and it’s always nice to see people responding well to a tiny, 70-year-old hijabi woman,” she laughs. Chalabi exec-produced the show herself and hosts it too, interviewing the people who are represented by the numbers.
“One of the things I love about statistics is that they can show you you’re not alone,” she concludes – a point I’d never really thought about before. “They prove that there are other people out there who have a shared experience with you. That’s what Strange Bird’s about: the things that make us different, the things that make us feel lonely and isolated.”