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Charisma and counting

I recently read a great book about big data called Everyone Lies by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz. At the time I had been talking with colleagues about gathering evidence, in the form of data, for the benefits of any change they had implemented. Much of what Everyone Lies (and I will return to this book in the future) is ‘asking the right question’ and gathering data that shows a causal (careful with the spelling there) rather than just a correlated relationship with the change being implemented. Of course collecting the correct data applies at an organisational level too. Key Performance Indicators (KPI) are essential to monitor an organisation’s progress towards its stated vision, and its performance relative to competitors. An organisation needs to be confident enough in its data to act if their KPI measures demonstrate there is a need to do so.

On a recent episode of Radio 4’s Inside Science I heard an example that illustrated another level of complexity: whether an audience is interested in the data and motivated to do something about what it represents. I guess that climate change looms large as an example of this but, on an equally apocalyptic level, what about the decline of our insect population? For years we have had data describing the decline of insect eating birds such as swifts (down 50% since 1995) and spotted flycatchers (down 90% in the same period). Butterfly, moth and bee population declines have all received extensive coverage causing alarm bells to ring and conservancy action to be activated.

However, have we been looking at the right data? Apparently not, until the publication of a report from a group in Germany who have monitored the decline of the whole flying insect population (as measured by their collective biomass) over 27 years. They have found an over 75% reduction in overall flying insect biomass in this period, on a broadly linear trend that shows no sign of letting up. With flying insects responsible for 75% of pollination of food crops (and 80% of flowering plants as a whole) and being the sole food source for 60% of the world’s bird population we have a problem much bigger than the potential of loss of a species or two of attractive, or charismatic, birds.

Which brings me to the word ‘charisma’. This broadcast was the first time I had heard the term ‘charismatic species’ to describe flora or fauna whose public relations profile could be harnessed in conservation campaigns. I guess I was aware of it and even responded as programmed with more interest in a statistic related to a swift, bee or butterfly over the less charismatic myriad of mozzies, midges and flys. Counting the decline of an insect eating bird can certainly be viewed as a proxy for the actual insect population decline but there is a risk that the data might just be correlated and not causal in its relationship with the reality observed. Much better to obtain the right data in the first place and to invest it with the charisma required to attract attention. This German study did achieve that to some extent, being picked up by the newspapers, for example in this article in the Guardian.

So, are you collecting the right data to demonstrate the impact of a personal, process and/ or organisational change and are you packaging it in a way that gives the charisma required to ensure stakeholder engagement? Perhaps something for you to ponder on in your area of work?

I noted one comment about the decline of flying insects in the UK that painted a clear, albeit unquantified, picture for me. It came from an old timer motorcyclist who has travelled for decades with his wife in his sidecar. They both noted a decline in flying insects as now they only had to pick insects out of their teeth at the end of summer time motorcycle journey rather that at several points along with way! Perhaps not an ideal sampling strategy but one with the necessary charisma to stick, but hopefully not in the gaps between your teeth!

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