“more or less”

Hans Rosling – Forming His World View on Facts; Not Feelings

In my recent RAJAR piece, I made reference to the sad news that Professor Hans Rosling had died.

Rosling was a Swedish professor of global health, and had found fame in a series of videos and programmes – notably beginning with a widely shared TED talk – that elucidated stories behind data in a way that made that data understandable. And he did this remarkably well.

Over the weekend BBC Two repeated Don’t Panic – The Truth About Population, which if you haven’t seen it, is well worth spending some time with. Some of your preconceived notions and worldviews will be shattered.

Then at the start of this week Tim Harford presented a really superb special edition of More or Less on the BBC World Service to remember Hans. It included memories of the man from people who knew him and worked with him, as well as excerpts from some of the programmes he’s made over the years.

I can’t recommend it highly enough.

In particular, I went to watch the live broadcast of a programme Rosling contributed to on the spread of Ebola in west Africa, and the ways in which it was combatted. Extracts appear in the special edition of More or Less.

Towards the end of the episode, there was a very powerful moment when producer Ruth Alexander, recalled visiting him at home at the end of last year. Rosling had appeared a number of times on More or Less, and made other programmes for the BBC. He’d still been keen to do another interview, even though he was very ill at the time with pancreatic cancer.

Alexander: “He said to me, ‘Please will you carry on this in your future work?’ And I think what he meant was, will you carry on looking at the facts, forming your world view and reporting on the state of the world based on facts. Not feelings; not what you think is probably true. But what is demonstrated by the facts and the statistics before you.”

Presenter Tim Harford agreed that this was a challenge to all of us.

Celebrity Deaths in 2016

Small Purplish Chap

No. I’m not about to pen a piece about sad the death of Prince. I couldn’t ever say I was a massive fan, although I’m enormously respectful of him and the range of his music. But in truth I never owned much of it. I think the album I must have listened most to of his was actually his Batman soundtrack – or at least the album of songs inspired by Tim Burton’s film, a handful of which actually made it into the movie alongside Danny Elfman’s score.

Instead I wanted to highlight a very worthwhile piece that aired on Radio 4’s More or Less last Friday exploring why so many celebrities seem to have died in the first months of 2016. There certainly do seem to have been more this year, although there are always ups and downs.

But what was hypothesised in the programme was the fact that we’re now reaching the period after which television, and pop and rock music made many more people famous than previously.

Suddenly there were an awful lot more people who’d found fame – often people who touched our lives during our adolescent years. And sadly they’re now reaching an age when they’re more likely to die.

That’s not to say that 69 for David Bowie, 62 for Victoria Wood or 57 for Prince aren’t terribly young ages to die at in 2016. But it does seem likely that celebrity deaths will become more common than they once were because from the latter part of the 20th century we had more cultural touchstones.

The edition of More or Less is really well worth a listen.

And that photo above of Prince?

It was taken at a great fun day out at the O2 in 2007 during Prince’s 21 night residency, when Virgin Radio took the entire station for a night out to see him. Prince had a strict “no photography” rule, but I was snapping away nonetheless until I felt the tap on my shoulder of a security guard. Worried that he was going to either wipe or take my SD card, I palmed it off to a colleague next to me, before being forced to put it in storage until after the show.

Telling the Truth About Ages

Back in 2012, James Cridland wrote a very good piece he called Truth in Numbers, which examined how Facebook marketed itself. He showed that while the Office of National Statistics showed there to be 7,482,000 16-24 year olds in the UK, Facebook was somehow selling access to 9,155,804 16-24 year olds.

I was curious to update these figures and look a little deeper across Facebook. It seems clear that while Facebook is clearly pretty popular amongst all age groups, it still dominates in younger groups.

So I decided to plot Facebook users that I can advertise against using James’ method, against the most recent ONS figures I can find – 2014 estimates.

A few notes on this chart:

  • Facebook only allows children to open accounts when they reach the age of 13. Therefore in the 10-14 category, they’re massively understated. But the chart does look a little odd. Only a tiny fraction of the audience seems to have an account. Either they already have an account (see below), or just aren’t really interested until hormones kick in as they get a little older.
  • Once you get to the 15-19, Facebook suddenly has over 100% of all people in that age group. Amongst 20-24s, Facebook reaches a remarkable 144% of adults in that category!
  • In reality, you would probably expect Facebook to reach a percentage in the high 90s, but there will always be people who don’t have an account.
  • But of course, just because a child is under 13, that doesn’t mean they don’t want to get onto Facebook. It seems likely that a lot of 10, 11 and 12 year olds over time have registered as being 13 or older just to get their accounts early. Peer pressure at school is probably enough to force this. If you have an email address, you can get an account.
  • And that skews the demographics going forward. At what point does someone “own up” to Facebook about their real age? Facebook lets you change your birthdate, but for the most part there doesn’t seem to be much incentive for correcting birth years.
  • And we must assume that there are fake accounts. There are a lot of people willing to sell you followers (and likes). We must assume that these are bots, operated through networks. And they’re likely to be pitched as advertiser-friendly younger demographics.
  • Once you get to 40, Facebook no longer claims to reach the entire adult population. I can attest to having friends in their forties who are not on Facebook. The numbers obviously slip as you move older – and this is despite your mum and perhaps your grandmother now being on the site.
  • And while 65+ looks bad, hover over the blue column because it’s way worse. I capped the chart at 6m on vertical axis. In fact there are 10.4m 65+s in the UK, of which only 26% are claimed to be reached by Facebook.
  • Facebook provides much more rounded numbers today compared to what it did when James ran his test, hence numbers to the nearest 100,000.

There may be other reasons why there seem to be so many UK Facebook users between 15 and 39, including use via proxies and so on. But it’s still a little disturbing that these numbers are being sold. But I guess that’s really just the tip of the iceberg in digital marketing!

On a separate note, there was an interesting piece on More or Less a couple of months ago. They reported that there is a significant imbalance between 16-17 boys and girls in Sweden, with 123 boys to every 100 girls, making it a greater imbalance than even China.

It seems to boil down to asylum seekers and Swedish rules which mean that if you’re under 18 and gain asylum, you have the right to bring your family into the country. If you’re 18 or over, you don’t get that right. That means that as an asylum seeker, you’re strongly incentivised to give you age as less than 18. Given that you probably arrived in Sweden without a birth certificate, who’s to know how old you really are? They don’t check, and in any case, they probably can’t.

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How Effective is the Charity Single in 2014?

In the last full series of More or Less, there was a really interesting episode that looked at charity giving and what is the most effective way to give money. It is not an easy question to answer as the programme clearly addresses.

I was thinking about this over the weekend when Bob Geldof was gathering another group of musicians, artists, and assorted famous folk, to record a new Band Aid version of Do They Know It’s Christmas?, this time to raise money to combat Ebola.

A fine cause undoubtedly, and the intentions behind this new charity recording are very good.

In 1984, the first recording was a phenomenal success, raising $24m and selling 3.75m singles to raise money to fight famine in Africa. This was followed, of course, by the even more successful Live Aid.

Charity records probably weren’t new then, and certainly haven’t been since. We’ve seen a succession of records raising money for charity with varying degrees of success. Indeed, the current number one is Gareth Malone’s latest in aid of BBC Children in Need (£32.6m raised this year).

But this is what got me thinking. In 1984, if I’d bought the Band Aid single (someone in our family did as we had a copy at home), it’d have cost about 99p to buy the 7″ in the shops.

Today, if I go to Amazon or iTunes, it’ll still only cost me 99p. Sure, the CD single will be more like £4, but there’s barely anywhere left to buy CD singles, and the majority of sales will surely be downloads [Disclaimer: It’s possible that supermarkets will give this heavy promotion in stores, shifting the balance a bit towards the physical product.].

According to the Bank of England’s inflation calculator, £1 in 1984 was worth £2.80 in 2013.

This highlights:

1. How cheap music is today in real terms compared with 30 years ago.
2. How relatively little you’re giving in 2014 when you buy a charity single download for 99p compared to what you would have done previously.
3. That if you’re going to buy the track, you really should wait and buy the CD (except it’s not out for another three weeks, while the download is on-sale now, and the track will surely be number 1 next weekend).
4. And that you really shouldn’t stream the track as a proxy to buying it – revenues that way will be paltry. At least buy it on CD when it comes out if you’re streaming it in the meantime.

With the single being VAT free, and retailers unlikely to take their cuts, we can assume that nearly all the money raised from sales will go directly to charity. And there is no doubt that the million pounds or so Geldof says has already been raised is probably a million pounds that wouldn’t have been raised without this single.

But I guess what I’m wondering is whether the charity single is the most effective way of raising money in 2014?

They probably get fans of some of the performers to buy the single when they wouldn’t have otherwise given to, say, the DEC appeal, which reported about a week ago that it had raised £20m in the UK. And we’ve seen Facebook in recent days add very prominent buttons on its desktop and mobile applications to allow users to give generously. The mobile networks let you donate very quickly via text to the DEC, and Paypal lets you donate via your account. All of these are very convenient and easy ways to give. They also make it easy for UK tax-payers to Gift Aid their contributions thereby increasing the value of their donation.

I have no solution, but I do think that we need new ways to generate serious money through popular culture beyond the charity single.

I look at the success of “totalisers” for things like successful Kickstarter appeals, or the amazing success of Stephen Sutton, the teenager who tragically died of cancer, but dedicated the last months of his life to raising funds for the Teenage Cancer Trust – up to nearly £4.5m.

I wonder if there’s a new model that can generate bigger amounts?

In the meantime, I’m not knocking Bob Geldof or the artists and performers in involved remaking this Band Aid single. They’re doing what they do best, and trying to raise much needed funds to fight the Ebola outbreak.

And just to put thing in perspective, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says that nearly $1bn is needed to properly fight the outbreak. To date $685m of this has been funded (Note: not all money given to Ebola causes will necessarily flow through the UN – see this edition of More or Less for a bit more on that). That gives an idea of the enormity of the issue we’re facing. In particular, many of the BRIC countries need to step up according to British officials in this FT report.

Addendum: I must say, I really didn’t like the public “naming and shaming” of artists who chose not to take part in Band Aid 30. It is always up to any individual how he or she wishes to give to charity and the form that is right for them. Calling people out for not doing what you wanted is completely unacceptable.

PS A significant proportion of the comments at the bottom of this review of the Band Aid 30 single in The Guardian single pretty much encapsulate why the bottom of the internet is sadly no longer worth reading in mass publication titles. But that’s a blog for another day.