If I were to write a blog post every time I saw an inappropriate use of numbers in the general media, well, I’d have a lot more blog posts. Innumeracy is rampant, at least partly due to the prevalence of arts- and humanities-educated people in the business, and sadly few seem to think this is an issue worth shouting about.
I’m one of those few.
A story on the BBC news website this morning caught my attention. Reporting on Cisco’s prediction of a boom in mobile internet devices, it included what I thought was a rather odd statistic: “by 2015, one million minutes of video will be watched online every second“.
Now, I take an interest in internet developments in general, and video in particular. At the time of writing, among other things, I’m head of video content at Centaur Media. Bandwidth is an issue facing anybody working in online video, and according to this report Cisco identifies it as a problem large enough to affect the whole net. But “one million minutes per second” seems a very odd way to define bandwidth.
Thinking this was perhaps the BBC reporter Maggie Shiels‘s spin on the issue, I checked Cisco’s original report. It wasn’t, and Shiels has at least partly improved an obtuse statistic. Cisco’s fifth annual ‘Visual Networking Index Forecast’ says: “By 2015, 1 million video minutes – the equivalent of 674 days – will traverse the Internet every second“.
Not only did Cisco inaugurate the minutes-per-second form, it helpfully rephrased this into days-per-second. It’s a wonder it didn’t go further, giving it as 1.9 years per second (one million minutes, by the way, equates to 694 – not 674 – days, but we’ll let that slide).
Considering that Cisco is a tech firm, this bizarre presentation of numerical data seems especially odd. Is there not a better way?
Of course there is. A million minutes is 60 million seconds. 60 million seconds per second. You don’t need to be a Fields Medal winner to work out that this is the same as 60 million minutes per minute, or years per year. It’s just 60 million.
Cisco could have simply said that, by 2015, it expects 60 million people to be simultaneously watching online video, all the time. That’s a much tidier way of expressing the problem.
Innumeracy in the media is one thing, but innumeracy in Silicon Valley? Yikes.