Nik Butler: Statistics and percentages cannot tell us the whole story

There is quote I am apt to use when confronted by statements backed by statistics: “Show me the numbers Mrs Landingham.”

JPCT 120314 S14110969x Nik Butler -photo by Steve Cobb SUS-141203-095917001
JPCT 120314 S14110969x Nik Butler -photo by Steve Cobb SUS-141203-095917001

It is a particularly obscure line from an episode of The West Wing yet it never feels more appropriate than in modern life. From referendum votes to Horsham parkrun results there are numerous metrics available in raw or tabulated data from which observations can be made and hence conclusions drawn. Indeed the very nature of our modern life enables the quantification of self and our communities can be ever more extrapolated as our actions are measured in moments of digital activity.

Which is why I tend to take a more skeptical stance when greeted with reports of Horsham’s economic successes; especially on the basis of its events. I tend to push back on sweeping generalisations or the romantic notions of economic value presented in percentages. As a business owner I appreciate that a healthy business requires trends of growth through the weeks and months rather than weekend festival feasts and mid week famine downturns.

Horsham has, to a certain extent, enabled some of these metrics by way of tracking the car parking activity. Although the difficulty here is that one cannot differentiate between employees and shoppers; though sometimes they can be both. What we cannot state is how each business’ sales were affected as the events come on through and to what extent they are sustained in the week afterwards.

There are currently no publicly available metrics defining the floor space performance in terms of profits for business be they retail or corporate. The public has no way of knowing just how effective plans, investments, or events are over any period of time; except when we are told ‘all has gone well’. Equally there are no ratings on household satisfaction with council or councilor performance. Considering just how much effort individuals and businesses must put into accounting for themselves why are we not demanding an equal measure of measurement from those bodies of public spending. One wonders what the politics of postcode performance would be were such a metric to exist.

Returning to the question of economic performance; should we trust generalised numbers which have been rounded up and abstracted into percentages without any comparable weighting of employment, housing, rates, or any other factors from which results can be drawn. Like I said: “Show me the numbers Mrs Landingham.”