I’m a person not a statistic

More dancing, less statistics.

The census was a snapshot of the nation but I doubt many people smiled for the photo. Every person in the country was made to do the same piece of homework on the same night. An impressive feat. Only statisticians could so comprehensively unite and annoy an entire nation.

It felt like I’ve answered most of those same questions plenty of times already since the last census. Doesn’t this information already exist? Doesn’t someone already have an evil supercomputer somewhere with all my details on tap? Or is that just Fly Buys?

A statistician would shake his head vigorously at this suggestion and mutter words like “methodology” and “limitations”. No, he would say, it’s more reliable to collect the information in a consistent manner.

He’d be right, of course, and I’d never dare argue with a statistician. A statistician can out-logic and out-bore me at every turn. It’s a good thing there are people who enjoy squinting at numbers all day so that people like me don’t have to.

2013 turns out to be International Year of Statistics, something I learned while browsing the admittedly excellent Statistics NZ website.  I didn’t realise there were international years of anything apart from Chinese animals. But here we are, celebrating statistics for a whole year. Excited? I am.

A look at the United Nations list of international observances shows that 2013 is also International Year of Quinoa. That seems like a nice idea, I suppose. So it’s a big year for statistics and quinoa.

I’m not sure who makes these decisions but I’d like to suggest that next time we try for an International Year of Community.

The census will tell us who lives here but it can’t tell us much about how we actually live with each other. It can’t show that I used to spend Sundays helping to care for my grandfather before he passed away, or that the neighbours’ kids run freely through our back yard. It can’t capture the vibe at the farmers markets or the conversation between a couple of dog owners on the beach.

In this light, census results have very little to say about the community they are describing. I don’t want to be a dot on your spreadsheet, I’m a person.

Think about what happens when you get caught in a sudden downpour and you find yourself rushing across the road with a bunch of other people. Suddenly, total strangers are laughing together at their collective misfortune.

You can choose to focus on the obvious downside, which is that you’re soaked. On the upside you’ve just shared a community moment with people you otherwise would never have connected with. I give that a thumbs up. It’s real life. The most comprehensive spreadsheet in the world can never capture a genuine smile.

If you’ve ever seen a flash mob in action you’ll know they generate a collective community warm fuzzy. Spontaneous choreography in the streets! It’s not normal to see people dancing in the street but it sure is fun.

Whether it’s a strange piece of art or someone wearing a funny hat, I’m a fan of random things that make you go “huh?” That moment of confusion jolts your brain out of its otherwise predictable trajectory. How do we foster more of that anarchic good will? How do we allow more of that creative spirit to seep into our community environment?

The census operation was a $72 million master class in careful planning. Analysts and planners will no doubt “utilise the results to better facilitate future options for society”. (That’s how you have to talk if you’re in a government job.)

While we wait for other people to make our lives better, let’s find our own ways to encourage a creative and positive community. I don’t know where it starts but maybe it’s as simple as smiling at our neighbours a bit more.


First published in Bay of Plenty Times 8 March 2013. Reproduced with permission.