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La lutte continue. Without context, numbers are just data. With context, they have a chance of being information.

I fondly remember a talk by then EPA Administrator Steven Johnson some years ago. Last year, he bragged from the podium, we recycled 600,000 tons (or some large number) of municipal solid waste. He beamed. I fretted. Was that a lot, or a little? Don’t know. Was it better than last year, or worse? Don’t know. Have we learned anything. Clearly not. Accurate data that’s absolutely useless. It’s everywhere.

Same problem with graphs in newspapers — even the venerable NY Times. You’ve seen it: a view of the top of a tall column chart, with the context of the full chart, so a 1% change looks like a 60% change. Sure, the detail’s there in the legend for those who look, but who looks?

(I laid out some of the principles in 2008 1998 in Environmental Quality Management: EcoMetrics: Integrating direct and indirect environmental costs and benefits into management information systems [924k PDF] and explored their application in 2004: Key sustainability KPIs: The simple, the sobering, the significant.)

Prompted by Sprint vs. AT&T: Dialing up the metrics that matter by Marc Gunther, and an ongoing conversation about “sustainability context” with Bill Baue, Mark McElroy, Allen White and others.