$58 million … is it a lot or not?
Well, it depends. $58 million is what NASA estimates a trip around the moon as a SpaceX tourist would cost. For most people, it’s out of reach compared to our median U.S. incomes of $59 thousand in 2017, or about 1000 times less than the cost of a ticket. But, $58 million is only about as much as six small hospitals would cost, or about six times the salary of a CEO in 2016, so it’s much more realistic for a CEO to think of buying a ticket.
In public engagement, we often throw around large numbers of acres, gallons, dollars, even people without much context. But for people to truly understand the impact of a given report, such as how much Hurricane Irma cost ($50 million, about as much as the revenue from the worldwide video game industry in 2011), they need context and something to which to compare large numbers. Ranking also helps – Hurricane Irma was the fifth-most expensive hurricane, behind Katrina, Harvey, Maria, and Sandy.
This story illustrates good examples of news-worthy numbers put into context. For example, it reports that 1 million plastic bottles are sold around the world every minute, enough to stretch halfway to the Sun. On a related note about the amount of garbage in the Pacific Ocean garbage patch, here’s a story that not only contextualizes the problem in the headline (it’s twice the size of Texas) but also goes on to show the problem on a map, including visualizing the problem with the same context of the size of Texas (P.S. my research provides evidence people like to compare in visualizations).
One helpful tool for contextualizing numbers is the Dictionary of Numbers. It’s a browser extension that automatically adds context to your numbers, at least some of them. However, it has some areas where it doesn’t work so well, as in this story, where it contextualizes 100 miles of coastline as the length of the Suez Canal. I’d rather it say something more like 100 miles is the distance you can drive in about an hour and a half on the highway, or the distance from New York City to Philadelphia (though try driving that in an hour and a half …). Another web site I found is The Measure of Things, which contextualizes measurements through a web search.
So the next time you’re sharing numbers, put them in perspective. That will help people understand the scale of the problem, and the risk of not addressing it.