“Any place, any person or any measurable phenomena is in real life greater than the sum of its data.”
Last year, Christopher Ingraham wrote a quick blog post for The Washington Post about an obscure USDA data set called the “natural amenities index,” which attempts to quantify the natural beauty of different parts of the country. Writing about obscure data sets is part of Ingraham’s job as a reporter for Wonkblog. He described the rankings, noted the counties at the top and bottom, hit publish and didn’t think much of it. Almost immediately he started to hear from the residents of northern Minnesota, who were not very happy that Chris had written, “the absolute worst place to live in America is (drumroll, please) … Red Lake County, Minn.”
On this week’s episode of our podcast What’s The Point, Ingraham discusses what happened after he met the community behind the data set: he responded to the emails, he visited Red Lake County, and now he is (drumroll, please) … moving there with his wife and kids.
Stream or download the full episode above, or subscribe using your favorite podcast app. Here are some excerpts from the conversation.
Red Lake responds
Jody Avirgan: What was the reaction from Red Lake Falls or Red Lake County?
Christopher Ingraham: It was very swift, even for online. The story went up on Twitter and within minutes I was getting offended tweets from people in Minnesota, not just people in Red Lake County. There was really just a huge outpouring of disagreement.
And the interesting thing is that plenty of other places in the United States looked really bad on these rankings too. There were plenty of counties in Iowa or Nebraska that were pretty close to the bottom of the list.
Avirgan: Right, we’re not doing a podcast about the second-worst county, right?
Ingraham: Yeah, exactly. Nobody in Iowa or Nebraska had anything negative to say about it. I actually heard from one guy in Omaha who was like, “Yeah, you know what, Omaha is kind of a dump. That sounds about right to me.” So, it was striking that only people in Minnesota, and in this particular area, were really riled up enough to respond to it.
The gap between people and data
Avirgan: I can tell, from your writing and even just talking to you [that] you’re a very rational thinker. I think you’re attracted to data and quantification, but has this changed your approach to that kind of thinking?
Ingraham: I think so. I think every time that I write about some data set now, some kind of ranking or some quantification, I’ll think twice in the back of my mind when characterizing something as worst or best or whatever. I don’t know if that necessarily means I’ll write about it any differently. [But] I’ll be much more conscious of that gap between data and lived experience. I think that’s the big takeaway from me here. It’s just a better understanding of my limits.
The interesting thing is, of course, any place, or any person, or any measurable phenomena is in real life greater than the sum of its data, right? You could go out to any person on the street and you could say, “Do you think your life could be accurately characterized in a spreadsheet or no?” And they’d be like, “Well no, that’s stupid.” But as media folks, as data reporters, as people who spend a big chunk of our day with our noses buried in spreadsheets, it can be easy to lose track of that really basic fact. I think that’s just a natural side effect of just doing that kind of work. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, but I think it’s good every once in awhile to go out and get your hands dirty and just remind yourself, “Yes, these are metrics, these are concrete measures,” but just remind yourself of the difference between the metric and what it is you’re measuring.
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