What’s in data?

OPINION

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Recently and increasingly, I’ve heard in the media, and from government officials phrases like, “data is data,” and, “the objective data is….” Those who say those phrases do so as if they were revealing true arguments, as if saying those words meant that they have an absolute and true notion about any problem. As if they meant “this is the only reality,” grabbing the truth by the horns. End of discussion.

I hear these phrases and I worry that those who say them not only don’t understand the definition of the word “data,” but also ignore the history and practices of the social and natural sciences that have brought journalism closer to methodology, precision and detail, which is why data journalism has been practiced for decades.

Let’s start by defining the term. Data is nothing more than information collected, organized and analyzed in a systematic way. That’s why there are, for example, databases: a repository of that information. It’s also important to understand two things. First, when we talk about information, we mean any type of information. Secondly, when we talk about collecting, organizing and analyzing, we’re referring to manual or automated actions done by human beings in a deliberate way.

In other words, someone thinks of information and designs a way to recognize and categorize it. It’s because of the latter that we cannot refer to the data as if it grew from a tree.

We have to, without exception, examine the structures, systems and people behind this collection of information. Like all actions carried out by human beings, an information system has an intention and serves a purpose. And of course, it has the bias of prejudices, methodological or technological limitations, and the experiences of the people responsible for this work.

Take for example Hurricane María. After September 20, 2017, and for more than a year, the Government of Puerto Rico had just over 60 deaths tied to the atmospheric event. Why? Because it didn’t want to include in the information collected what would show a battered infrastructure that could not support the lives of what was later estimated at more than 3,000 deceased people. In other words, someone made the decision to choose some deaths and not others to be included in the official death reports.

One may also consider the gender violence that the island faces. The legislature and anti-human rights groups have said that “violence is violence” and details or definitions aren’t necessary to act against it. This pronouncement ignores the work of social scientists and activists who reject that and who put into perspective, with their rigorous studies, the importance of including in social problems the definitions, causes and cultural roots of all the dynamics that occur in a society.

Why is it important to avoid generalizations when dealing with complex and historical issues? Because what isn’t said, can’t be seen. To recognize and act on the issues that affect the island, it’s important to categorize and make the problem visible in detail.

Take for example the term “femicide” (the murder of a woman on the basis of gender). Right now, this category is not included in the Government’s statistics. The Senate just recently approved including femicide in the Penal Code as first-degree murder.

The term does appear in a March 20 report written by the Puerto Rico Institute of Statistics as part of the work being done by the Committee for the Prevention, Support, Rescue and Education of Gender Violence (PARE, in Spanish). But it isn’t backed by specific information — nor figures or explanations. According to a table included in this report, which lists gender-violence statistics available at the government level, the Puerto Rico Police Bureau does have statistics of “confirmed femicides” in 2020.

This document, however, is not available at the Police Bureau nor has it been published by its press office. If someone, right now, wants to know how many murders due to domestic violence have taken place in Puerto Rico so far this year, the answer, according to the information on the Police Bureau’s website, is eight: two women, six men. These figures are current through March 30, 2021. The document referred to by the Institute of Statistics apparently does not exist.

Requests for information for more current information led to other documents that were even more confusing. Consider this: Last week, the Police still used the category of “crime of passion” in its official documents.

Those documents, released on May 6, said that five men had been murdered for a “passionate” motive, and another man and two women had been murdered for domestic violence. In other charts with requested information updated to May 11, the Police eliminated, without going public, “crime of passion” from its categories and dropped the corresponding figures into the area of domestic violence.

We acknowledge the victory of eliminating that category because we understand that passion doesn’t kill, people do. But we must also recognize that there are still inconsistencies in the data that the Police Bureau has collected, analyzed and published that have not been explained.

These official figures, which are supposed to steer the State’s public policy, could lead someone to conclude that men are the most at risk of being killed because of their gender.

In addition, they reduce gender violence-related murders to intimate relationships, when different organizations have stressed that gender violence happens in different circumstances. As of Wednesday, six women and seven men were accounted for as murdered by domestic violence, according to the Police.

However, 21 femicides had occurred on the island as of May 2, 2021, according to the Gender Equity Observatory. This project monitors and collects gender violence statistics in categories that go beyond intimate partner relationships and includes minors and transgender people because they believe their lives are also at risk due to their gender.

The two previous examples are dangerous but excellent to start weaning from the one-sided “data is data” discourse. When that is said, the information is being reduced to a figure, a characteristic, a unique detail. It’s as if we’re talking about life referring only to a cell. Yes, a cell is the most basic structure of life, but life is more than a basic structure. And that’s what journalism is about: To question the human experience, its contexts and reasons.

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