Is age really just a number? A review of a Mail and Guardian story

Data tools and advice

I write a lot of science and science policy but I am a firm believer that politics can influence science. So I was excited to see the interactive map that the South African Mail and Guardian had done on the ages of leaders across the globe. They are talking of my president too so I am bound to be even more interested in the story, titled, When it comes to Mugabe, age is just a number.

Judging from the number is data stories in the data section the Mail and Guardian is relatively new to the field. Let’s examine how they have handled the data.

The data tool

They have used tableau, which allows users to visualise and share their data for free. Tableau has other options, which you have to pay for this article shows you can do a good data story with free resources.

 The length

It’s short and concise yet provides enough information to enable the reader to understand what the story is about. However, there is a downside to the length as it doesn’t allow the paper to provide context to the story.

The chart

They have used an interactive chart that allows you to see the age of each country leader when you click the dots. It’s clear for anyone to understand even those who are terrified by graphs like I used to be.

Each region has been assigned its colour, which is good because you will know which region the president of a country you have clicked is in. Let’s face it not all of us know how many countries are in the world, let alone which region they fall under. The story provides a good geography lesson and fulfils the one of the key roles of the media, which is to educate.

 The map

You have to click each country to see the age of the president for that specific country. I don’t think you need a map when you have a chart.


I like data stories that provide context. This is a fun data story but it doesn’t provide any context. I expected to be told why I, as a reader, I should care about the ages of the presidents.

A comment from a political analyst would have helped or comparing how countries who are led by older presidents perform against those with younger leaders.

The big lesson from this is that data stories should provide context.



How to use Json

Data tools and advice

Today in class we learnt how to extract data using JavaScript Object Notation (Json), a  format that is easier to read than xml. Data that comes in a Json format is also easy to collect, which is why it maybe worthwhile to learn for data enthusiasts.

There are simple steps to using Json and I outline them below.

Our class example was the UK postoffice API. A google search of UK postoffice API will lead to this url:

The url has an example API, which is listed on the section written as Return data for postcode. Copy the link

Paste the link onto a different webpage.

Then remove square brackets encircling postcode and (no space). Also remove the square brackets encircling xml, csv, Json and leave Json leaving.

Add your postcode. Some browsers will only allow you to open as a notepad.

If it opens in a browser copy and paste to a notepad.

When it downloads onto the notepad it will appear in linear format as in below

In the notepad a colon (:) denotes pairs so you have to separate the data into pairs

To do that press enter after the first comma

Press enter after geo and press the space tab to indent

Repeat process for the following pairs. New properties such as administrative don’t need to be indented.

Your notepad should end up something like this

Live blog of Making it Count, a conference on big data

The stories

Four international organisations held meeting on big data today. The meeting, which took place in London, sought to find solutions to overcoming challenges facing big data. Among these are the need to ensure that the public “engages” research data.

SciDev.Net, an online science publication; the  International Development Research Centre, a Canadian funder; the British Council and UKCDS, a group of UK government departments and funders involved in international development, organised the meeting.

I liveblogged the event. Click slide show in tweet below for more details: