I read with interest The Guardian’s piece on Monday about the statistical analysis of the recent UK Riots – or, to be more specific, analysis of those arrested during the disturbances. That’s an important distinction, you see, because the two are not the same thing.
The data tells us that only 13% of those arrested had been identified as gang members, more than half were under 20 and more than two thirds of the young people involved were identified as having special educational needs.
I couldn’t help thinking of an incident that happened to me back in my own mis-spent youth … one I’m not particularly proud of, but it’s worth retelling here now.
I was in my early twenties and on the way home from some kind of works do, a little bit the worse for wear. Fell asleep on the tube, missed my stop and found myself in Uxbridge, miles from home and having missed the last tube back. So I went into town in a fruitless search for a cab. Feeling a sudden urgent need to relieve myself, I did so in what I thought was a quiet back alley against a wall, (like I say, not proud. But who hasn’t?), only to feel a hand on my shoulder and hear words along the lines of “you’re nicked, sonny”, before being bundled into the back of a police van with another rather mild-mannered young offender.
Dumfounded as to what seemed to be pretty heavy-handed policing, I found my fellow detainee had also been arrested for similarly spurious reasons. “It’s because there was a huge fight in the city centre tonight when the pubs spilled out”, he informed me. “the police here always do this. Wait until the trouble has died down and then just nick whoever they can find still out on the streets”. After all … it wouldn’t look so good on the local constabulary or its statistics if there were major known incidents that night and no arrests, now, would it?
Now … I’m not saying that this is what happened during the UK riots, but it does at least give me cause to question the statistical analysis we’re now being presented with. Are these statistics for all those involved in the UK Riots? Or just for those who were the easiest to arrest?
And herein lies the problem with statistics. I’m all for the increasing trend towards openness of data and the wonderful things you can do with it. But if history is written by the winners, then policy is written by the statisticians. The stampede to visualise and create more tools and services to engage wider audiences in such data and embed it in our lives needs to be measured by a greater transparency and discussion around the sources.
Data – like any other kind of report – only tells part of the story, and it can be just as one-sided or subjective as any other. I’d like to see an infographic that highlights this disparity.