$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.


Posted: August 14, 2018

Category: Agriculture, Curriculum, Natural Resources, Professional Development
Tags: Data Visualization, Public Engagement With Science, Science Communication, Science Outreach


Katie Stofer

May 23, 2022

Hi Yilmazcan, I don't have that answer for you. I would suggest you reach out to the company, Pufferfish, Ltd., to get a more detailed answer and specifications. Apologies for the long delay on seeing your comment!

Katie Stofer

May 3, 2019

Great, thanks for reading and for sharing your experience! I think all manner of faculty research support is welcome and a great option.

Kim Taylor Kruse
May 2, 2019

Fundraising can be another option. I have a bachelor's in biology and master's in science communication, and I work with university faculty to identify and secure funding from companies and foundations.

Kathryn (Katie) Stofer
August 17, 2018

So a followup on this - I have installed the extension in my browser, and when registering for a conference, it contextualizes the numbers for me. I haven't tried it on airfare or lodging though! friday and saturday Early rate: $300 [≈ cost of PS3 gaming system, 2011] Standard (9/8/18 on): $375 [≈ cost of a suit] friday only Early rate: $250 [≈ cost of PS3 gaming system, 2011] Standard (9/8/18 on): $325

Yılmazcan Mutlu
February 23, 2018

Dear nikitasoni238 , Thank you for sharing your Interactive Global Screen experience. I am doing my research on this subject. I have had the chance to look into the product in detail as much as I can see in the photos. I know they use wide angles as lenses. Do you have any idea about how many mm? Best regards

March 23, 2016

Now I've found two more "D"'s added to STEM: STEM-D for design and disaster (as in education about natural disasters using STEM).

Katie Stofer

December 9, 2014

Update: this morning I picked up my latest issue of GSA Today, from the Geological Society of America. Their "Groundwork" commentary article describes a similar issue in fieldwork versus quantitative data, especially compounded by a bias in funding: http://www.geosociety.org/gsatoday/archive/24/12/article/i1052-5173-24-12-44.htm

Comments are closed.

Subscribe For More Great Content

IFAS Blogs Categories