How I stopped worrying and learned to love data analysis

One of the modules I’ve been teaching this term involves writing about graphs. At first this seemed pretty boring, but as the classes went by I discovered an untapped love of data analysis.

Data analysis hasn’t ever been cool, but over the last five years or so it’s become fairly popular in internet terms. Sites like Information is Beautiful, the Guardian’s Datablog and Google’s Public Data Explorer exist to turn big data into easily digestible infographics. Then there’s Hans Rosling’s TED Talk, which leaves you shocked, overwhelmed – ravaged, even – by the Swede’s passion for data.

Anyway, yesterday I started a class with this graph (click to embiggen):

old people graph

It shows that the elderly (65+) percentage of the population is going to keep rising for the next forty years; in these five countries, at least.

I asked some of the Chinese students about how the one-child policy affected all this. They said if your one child is a girl, and she leaves home when she gets married, the parents can find themselves entering old age with no-one to look after them. This is one of the reasons female babies can get aborted or abandoned. With the population getting top heavy, the future seemed to be large numbers of abandoned elderly people.

A Lebanese student said, “In the UK, the government looks after you when you get old, right?” I said this was generally true, but wanted to back it up with some data, so we looked at the wonderful and startling Government spending by department [pdf here].

It turns out the UK government spends £74bn on state pensions – far more than they spend on any other kind of benefit, more than they spend on education and about double the total amount spent by the MoD. Pensions are expensive. And the over-65 part of the population is getting bigger here, just like everywhere else.

“So the UK must be a pretty wealthy country,” said another student. I told him about how things used to be better. When I was at university I didn’t worry too  much about getting a job at the end. Jobs were pretty easy to come by, the economy was going well. Now things weren’t so good. So what happened? I told them about how the country had got heavily into debt, and now everything had gone wrong. I showed them this one from the Guardian about government borrowing and they were shocked at the recent figures.

What happened in 2008? I asked, and they knew something about it. We watched the video below which goes through collateral debt obligations, the housing bubble and how sub-prime mortgages brought down the banks.

As a visualisation, it’s very nicely done. Is it factual? I don’t know, but I watched it this summer with a Japanese guy who had moved to the UK to work for an investment bank (I don’t remember which), and he said it was fairly accurate. He didn’t agree that Greenspan’s 1% interest rate had anything to do with the dotcom boom and 9/11. Personally, the part I don’t like is how the images portray the people who got sub-prime mortgages as trash. Seems to imply they got what they deserved, when I would guess a lot of them were hard-working people who suddenly had the chance to get on the property ladder. Liberal wishful thinking? Maybe.

I was very clear with the students throughout that I am not an expert in statistics, and certainly not in economics. Some of the visualisations are neutral (e.g. the demographics data), and others carry a bias (the video), so I made them aware of that. And I try not to trust the Guardian much more than I do other papers (broadsheets, at least), even though I read it the most.

Anyway, we finished the lesson several miles away from where we had started. From more people getting old to the financial crisis in one hour. Not a learning objective in sight, and most of what we had learnt would not be assessed. Still, a good lesson.

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