Rawson Developers has published a distorted and misleading graph in a promotional brochure for a new development, called Three Fountains. This is why you should care.
I’ve decided to deviate slightly from my normal subject matter, and into the daring world of investigative journalism. As a disclaimer, this isn’t really investigative journalism – that requires nerves of steel, a firm moral high ground, and a stubborn unwillingness to just let things go, which I’m afraid to say, I have none of.
Actually, what this is, is a very small exposé of a very small piece of misdirection, if not actual deception, on the part of Rawson Developers. I thought I would talk about it as data journalism is a growing global trend, and misrepresentation of data is a real problem, even in the scientific literature (where we are trained to spot it).
The misinformation in question is found in a promotional brochure for a new Rawson development, called Three Fountains, as well as on their website. I’m not going to talk about the development itself – what we are after is one particular graph, found here.
This graph was produced to show how centrally located the new development is – obviously, it is desirable for Rawson Developers to show that Three Fountains is in a good location, i.e. short distances to major attractions in Cape Town. A quick look at the numbers told me that the graph is pretty much made up, and has distorted those figures quite drastically. I plugged the same numbers into a spreadsheet, and in a few minutes generated a new one for comparison:
I made the smallest value (Cavendish Square Shopping Centre) the same size in both graphs to make the comparison easier. One can quite clearly see that the Rawson Developers graph is misleading.
Now, I’m sure that some of those reading this may be saying, ‘So what?’ right about now. And in a way, you’re right. This is not that big a deal, in the greater scheme of things. Life will go on. Probably, it’s not even illegal.
My problem is that this kind of thing relies on public ignorance. If you tried this trick in a scientific paper, you’d be laughed out of the room, because it is misrepresentation of the data, and therefore, misrepresentation of the facts. But the public is not trained to spot this.
I’m not writing this to catch Rawson out, even though what they did here is ethically in the grey (I did send an email to tell them about this, and I was not surprised not to get a reply*). I am writing this in an attempt to bring this kind of thing to people’s attention. I’m willing to bet it happens a lot. With data visualisation becoming more and more important in the news and in corporate communication like this brochure, it will keep happening. So my message is: look past the nice graphic. Read everything like a scientist. Doubt everything.
*Update: I did, in fact receive a reply from Rawson Developers. I t is reproduced in full below:
Dear Mr Kennedy,
Thank you very much for informing me of this error on our brochure. Sometimes we do overlook something because you go over it so many times that you miss the little things which is actually very important.
I have informed our advertising company of this error and we will be fixing it for our next set of flyers.
Hope you have a lovely day further.
And thank you again.