DROWNING IN DATA
Making the Unknown Known With Mona Chalabi
Words by Perrin Drumm Feature originally appeared in Riposte #9.
Do a Google Image search for “bar graph” or “pie chart” and you won’t find Mona Chalabi’s work. Those Plain Jane data visualisations you’ve seen in textbooks or on the nightly news are not her style. Rather, she sees a person behind every data point and uses her vibrant, humorous illustrated work (on subjects as diverse as American pizza-eating habits and pubic hair grooming injuries to hate crimes and immigration issues) to translate statistics into human stories that are as arrest- ing as they are accessible. And at a time when we’re drowning in more data than we know what to do with, Chalabi’s wit and rigour feels more vital than ever.
She greets me in her Brooklyn neighbourhood of Fort Greene, where people walking by stop to say hey. I call her the queen of the block and she doesn’t correct me. She’s evidently at home here, though she was born in London and took a circuitous path to the United States. After graduating with a master’s degree in international security at Sciences Po in Paris, she moved to Jordan in 2010 to work with Iraqi refugee families in the statistics department of the International Organisation of Immigration (other CV highlights include: the Bank of England, the Economist Intelligence Unit and Transparency International). She eventually found her way to NYC with a stint at FiveThirtyEight, the political site founded by Nate Silver that specialises in opinion poll analysis, a practice Chalabi now disagrees with vehemently; she even later produced a video for The Guardian called “Political polls are bad for democracy: here’s why.”
It’s one of many videos she created at The Guardian, where she has risen as a leading voice of not just her generation, but of generations of women. Take Vagina Dispatches, an Emmy-nominated series created with her (then) colleague Mae Ryan. The four short videos, which aim to demystify topics such as the vulva, stopping periods and the orgasm gap, and to elucidate the many things you didn’t learn in sex-ed, reached a huge audience and a wide range of women, including a 67-year-old who emailed Chalabi to tell her that “she discovered her pee-hole for the very first time after watching the series.” She also heard from “a 14-year-old girl who said she was going to get labiaplasty and changed her mind after watching the series.” Whether it’s vaginas or numbers, Chalabi is expert at making the unknown known. And exciting. And beautiful. While other statisticians and data journalists are busy using software to make one blasé bar chart after another, Chalabi is hand-drawing much of the same information to much greater effect. Her work is smart, irreverent and shareable. Most importantly, though, it’s honest.
“Those other charts give this false veneer of scientific perfection. Vague probabilities are communicated with pixel precision,” says Chalabi. “Whereas by the very fact that I’m drawing it with my hand, I’m saying to you: ‘We think it’s somewhere between this and this.’ You can never look at a chart and know something to the decimal place, and that’s part of the goal. True data is not to the decimal place and anyone who tells you it is—anyone predicting the outcome of the US election to one decimal place—is lying to you.”
More so than most journalists, Chalabi is keenly aware of how effective her medium is at communicating her message. Over the past few years, her illustrations have progressed from simple coloured-pencil drawings on graph paper to felt tip pens—“a definite choice to make the designs more bold”—with newer experiments in animation and watercolours.
When it comes to testing out new visual direction, Instagram plays a significant role. That’s how she discovered that felt tips got more likes than coloured pencils. “A big part of the evolution of my work is seeing what gets the most likes. To me, that’s a good thing. It shows what people are responding to. I’ve never been ashamed of pursuing the biggest possible audience for my work. If I write a piece about, say, the average number of sexual partners, and it gets read by people who don’t normally give a shit about data, I think that’s a great thing.”
That doesn’t mean the most beautiful graph always wins. At the time of this interview, the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, had just occurred, and Chalabi was quick to respond over the weekend with an infographic about the attacks. While she admits it’s not her most visually compelling work to date, it was a clear case of when story trumps style.
“Because the visual style I’ve developed is meant to be fun, it’s difficult to produce a graphic that’s sensi- tive to the fact that people died, but is also shareable and compelling, and I think in this case I failed. It’s not a particularly shareable graphic. It’s maybe even dull and boring, but it’s a work in process.”
To be truly successful, a visualisation must meet Chalabi’s three criteria:
1. It’s memorable.
2. It connects the subject matter with the numbers.
3. It communicates uncertainties.
To that last point, you might notice that most of Chalabi’s infographics don’t use hard-and-fast numbers. Often, she says, they’re just not all that helpful. “I don’t think that adds anything to people’s understanding. To me it’s about relative scales.” And remember, she says, “every single data point is about a person. I’m trying to make that connection clearer. The visuals are a really important part of that, but—and maybe this is my lack of cultural knowledge; growing up we did not do cultural shit—I’m always trying to speak in the simplest terms possible.”
Perhaps that’s part of the reason she often uses herself as a data point. “It feels intellectually honest and it’s helpful for people as a point of comparison. Part of the success of Vagina Dispatches is the over- sharing. People see a real person talking to them about how my world is and how I think the world is, not telling them how the world actually is. And that’s so much more relatable.
“Some of what I’m doing with this data is just articulating the comparisons we already make every day. Like, if you see another woman and think, ‘Oh my tits are smaller than hers.’ Some of it is massively self- destructive and some of it is hugely important. I had a breast cancer scare last month—it’s fine—but I’m going to write about it, because if another woman reads it and thinks, ‘Oh, she’s only 30 and she had a breast cancer scare, maybe I should get checked out.’”
If comparing yourself against data is a way to better understand yourself, then Chalabi must know herself inside and out. While some people keep diaries and others draw in journals, a data editor keeps spread- sheets. Chalabi showed me just a handful of hers, in particular the spreadsheet chronicling all her dates with an ex-boyfriend, part of an ongoing project to track all the dates she’s been on since moving to New York. “I think somehow I knew we were going to break up and I’d be visualising it, so I kept quite good records. The patterns are so revealing. I bet when I map all [my dates] out I’ll see: dry patch, series of dates, bad date, dry patch. You learn so much by just visualising it.”
But what about the reams of really complicated global data she’s confronted with on a daily basis: immigration rates, incidents of race-related violence, wage- gap disparities, and the like. How does she know where to start? The obvious answer is, like any journalist, she starts with her story, the very particular point of view she wants to ensure is represented in mainstream media outlets. “I 100 per cent have an agenda. I’m super aware of the fact that very often there are different stories I can tell. When I look at a spreadsheet, I could choose that row of data which tells you one thing, or I could choose this other row of data which tells you something else.”
A lot of the stories she chooses to tell are tragic or gruesome, not to mention complex. You might think that after parsing through column upon column of extremist murder rates and hate crime stats that she’d veer towards towards darker stories. But Chalabi’s output is remarkably balanced. For every infographic on the sad state of immigration or racial discrimination, there’s a hilarious chart on penis girth or popular dog names. How the hell does she maintain such a sharp sense of humour and mental equilibrium—and how does she manage to stay so in tune with the people living behind the numbers who she has never and will never meet?
She answers me with a story about a recent survey of American eating habits, in which participants were asked to keep a food diary. “That data might sound super dry, but when you drill into it, because it’s so detailed, I start to develop a qualitative picture. For example, in the data set I found one person who all they had to eat in a day was a glass of milk and a cheese sandwich. Then I see this person is 75. Oh, it’s a man. He says he’s a widower. Then you start to imagine that his wife cooked for him and she’s not around anymore. Now, maybe those interpretations aren’t right, but you start imagining a real person if you just have enough of those data points. That, to me, is so fascinating.” She pauses and smiles with her whole face. “I really do love what I do.”