Sunday, 16 August 2015

Contemplating the Metaphysical Meaning of Numbers

I flew back into Dubai yesterday morning. I was en-route to Abu Dhabi and this month’s Abu Dhabi Police Project Board Meeting. Although this meant the 4th weekend on the trot that I have been away from home, I was pleased to be coming back. The culture here means that face to face encounters are always the preferred ways of growing relationships than using new technology to try and communicate from afar. In terms of the project, things are really moving in the right direction and the training stage of the work is well under way. It will be good to catch up with the team later on today.
I was slightly amused on Friday to receive an email from Emirates (there are other airlines flying to the Middle East) that contained so much information I wondered just how many people there were involved in daily updating the data. Not only did the email tell me the details of my flight, but what the weather forecast was for the 4 days I'm in Abu Dhabi; there was a menu (for each level of ticket) and the wines being served. I could see the complete film list and what music was available to listen too. It was a trip advisor in words and numbers. And last week was a bit like that for me as well.
I got to see a preview of this year’s Key Information Set (KIS) information. KIS provides prospective students (and I guess their parents) with information on how the programme of study they may fancy doing compares with similar programmes in all other universities. So important and often critical decision making factors are reduced to numerical values – 90% of students were satisfied with the programme; 88% got graduate jobs in the 12 months following completion; the typical cost of accommodation is £XXX; you will spend 40% of your time in lectures and so on.   
The KIS data is assembled from a range of national performance indicators such as the National Student Survey (NSS). This annual survey is for undergraduate students in their final year. This year’s NSS outcomes were good for the School, with an average 5% rise in student satisfaction, with one course gaining a 25% rise. Nationally 86% of all students polled were satisfied with their experience, and for many of our programmes we were way above this figure.
Our Postgraduate Research students were also doing well in terms of their satisfaction. Nearly 83% were satisfied with their experience, way above the rest of the University, our nearest competitor nearly 10% behind us. We also came top in terms of research culture 71% compared to the University overall score of 58%. And for the third quarter in a row our School has topped the University research grant income league table and have now secured more research income than any other School for this year. On average we are securing 30% of all grants applied for.
Of course these numerical facts belie the contribution of individuals. Last month colleagues from the School made an incredible 89 deposits of their published papers into the University of Salford’s Institutional Repository (where all research outputs are stored). The nearest School to ours deposited just 25 papers in the same period. 
And I find looking at the numbers a fascinating way of trying to make sense of the world. There is lots of different ways numbers can be used. I really liked this infographic sent to me by a colleague in the US - see here which captures and presents a wealth of information about child mental health in the US in a simple and powerful way. But there are other ways that numbers represent how people make sense of the world. For example, Research Gate told me last week that there had been 970 downloads of my papers, 6032 on-line views of my publications, and my papers had been cited 675 times by other authors. Last year there were 117,000 views of my blogs and last week, for some reason, 8 people viewed a blog I had written in October 2011. These are not the most impressive set of statistics but nevertheless it makes me wonder what these numbers translate to in terms of the way people view our worlds.

Yesterday, there was one number that made it easy for me to understand my world. I went and sat out side to read. The temperature was 44C even in the shade. So after a very short while I was back inside, up in the confines of my room, which although very pleasant, doesn't really reflect the spirit of  a vibrant Abu Dhabi!

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