Mona has a passion to make numbers and statistics more relatable and understandable, and she doesn’t shy away from uncomfortable topics. Her simple interpretations of information are a refreshing take on a sector often left for the intellectually elite. This desire to have infographics understood by those who have a right to has led her to a successful career in data journalism.
Her data sketches cover a range of topics, from the Greek GDP per capita to searches for “hangover cure” throughout the week, in which she expresses the data using illustrations over graphs wherever possible.
As well as working for The Guardian, Mona writes a regular column for New York Magazine in which she answers readers’ questions using numbers rather than personal experience. She also writes and presents for National Geographic and VICE television shows.
We spoke to Mona about her frustrations of analysing large data sets that didn’t resonate with the public, why simplifying data is so important and the creative process behind her data sketches.
Miriam Harris: How did you begin your career with infographics and data journalism?
Mona Chalabi: "I used to work in the statistics department of an NGO but I quickly got frustrated. The numbers we were collecting were so important (they were about refugees and people that had been displaced within the country) but we were talking to each other, in our own language, rather than trying to communicate those statistics to the public.
"So I took a one-day course in data journalism taught by Simon Rogers who was Data Editor at The Guardian at the time. At the end of the course, I asked him if I could come in to work with his team one day per week. The rest of the story is a bit boring for anyone reading this, but it was great fun for me!"
MH: Why do you think simplifying data and numbers is so important?
MC: "If statistics are so complex that only a handful of people understand them, how can those numbers be checked? And I’m not just talking about making sure that 2+3=5, I mean figuring out why those numbers are the way they are.
"Are we even counting the right things? And when those equations are about a student’s performance, insurance premiums or even immigration policy, it’s obvious statisticians aren’t the only experts. The numbers represent people who have a right to understand formulas, and question them."
MH: How did your style of simple data sketches, as seen on your Instagram account, come to fruition?
MC: "I found myself feeling frustrated at work again! After working in data journalism for a few years, I noticed there were a lot of people in the profession who were arrogant (including me sometimes, I’m sure) - I wanted to find a public way to share my work where someone could comment saying 'I don’t get it'. or 'what does this mean?', 'you got it wrong'.
"Data journalism has come so far, but not necessarily in the right direction as journalists try to outdo each other - some of the visualisations I see are so complex they feel like intellectual elitism. When I glance at the graphics, they seem to say “either you’re smart enough to get this or you’re not”. That’s alienating. I don’t think that’s what journalism is about."
MH: Talk us through the creative process behind your illustrations.
MC: "It takes a while! Sometimes I start off with a dataset that I’ve found that is interesting to me (often it’s from an academic paper) or sometimes my research starts with a question like 'which letter on a keyboard is pressed the most often?' and goes from there.
"Then I think about the basic charting methods - line charts, bar graphs, scatter plots etc - and which of them feels right for the topic. Instead of bars, can I use bloody animal heads? Instead of a line, can I draw vomit? Then I change into some jogging bottoms, turn on Spotify and pick up a pencil!"
MH: How do you think your data sketches help contribute to considerably difficult social discussions?
MC: "My goal is for discussion to start from consensus. Of course people are going to disagree, but if we can at least talk from the same starting point, an agreement about where things are at, then that can be a really helpful way to make sure that the conversation goes somewhere. I think numbers can give people that starting point."