Why providing sources is vital – even for the Government chief scientific adviser

The Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Mark Walport, has published his first annual report, “Innovation: managing risk, not avoiding it”.

It’s not a light read but it is an important one. It comes with a companion volume, “Innovation: Managing Risk, Not Avoiding It. Evidence and Case Studies”.

This is more accessible, not least for having some infographics. One at the opening of Section 1 caught my eye. Below is a screengrab of the pdf document open on my laptop.

Internet-use-Government-CSA-companion-volume

It asserts that twenty years ago (presumably toward the end of 1994, that is) there were fewer than 3 million people with internet access but that the figure today is nearly 2.5 billion.

Presumably the rows of people visualise this great increase. But how?

There are 3 shaded figures so they could be representing 3 million people with internet access – each figure being 1 million people. But what are the other figures (337 of them)?

This kind of visualisation is good for proportions. So if the three shaded figures are 3 million, with world population being about 5.5 billion in 1994 we should expect to see 5,500 other figures (because 5.5 billion is 5,500 million). Clearly there aren’t that many figures, so I’m not sure that this graphic is particularly helpful.

But there’s something else…

Were there really fewer than 3 million people with internet access in 1994?

I know I was one and I don’t think I was among the earlier adopters. The figure is repeated in the document’s text but no source is given (or at least not one that is given an end-note).

Of course the internet and the web have made it easy to look for sources with which to check facts.

There is a website, internetstatslive.com, that says it is tracking internet user numbers in real time. It also includes figures for years past.

Their figure for 1994 is 25,454,590. Now that does seem remarkably precise. But at about 25 million it’s a lot, lot more than 3 million. Even for the year before they have a figure of about 14 million.

Their source is the International Telecommunications Union which describes itself as “the United Nations specialized agency for information and communication technologies”.

Rather helpfully the World Bank has data on its website on internet user numbers expressed per 100 people. In 1994 that says 4.9 out of 100 people in the United States were internet users. The US had a population of around 260 million in 1994. This suggests the number of internet users in that country alone was around 14 million. I haven’t checked but presumably the sum of the other countries’ internet users would bring that close to the 25 million put forward by internetstatslive.

All this suggests that there were a lot more than 3 million internet users 20 years ago. So where has that 3 million figure come from?

It could be a matter of definitions, or uncertainties in estimates for years gone by, a misunderstanding on my part, or a mistake on theirs?

I’m making contact with the Government Chief Scientific Adviser to find out – using the internet to both email and tweet him, of course!

In the meantime, as I’ve blogged elsewhere – the lesson here is to give a reference for any statistics you quote.

UPDATE (21 November 2014): the Chief Scientific Adviser’s office has kindly replied. The source is apparently work done in 2012 by the author of the relevant chapter, Professor Ian Goldin. The CSA’s office say they recognise the reference to 20 years ago should really be 22 years ago.

They point out that in 1994 there was uncertainty about numbers of people with internet access citing an article in the New York Times. Personally, I feel that the uncertainty should have been recognised in the document; and even more so a source given.

I have asked if they intend to issue an amended version of the document. The great thing about the internet age is that amending documents is not the expensive business it used to be when everything was printed.

And, again, I am grateful to the CSA’s office for looking into this. It’s a great example of engagement between government institution and public.

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