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We're hiring! Why I work at OWID and why you should consider joining our research team

Now that Our World in Data has secured four years of funding, we're looking to expand our small team. We're on the search for a postdoctoral researcher in the area of global health and population sciences. At a high level, we're looking for someone with experience in handling, analyzing and presenting data and with a background in global health, demography, population sciences, epidemiology, or public health. You can find the nitty-gritty details of the role and application process here.

I'm Hannah Ritchie, a researcher at OWID, and have been involved with the project since April 2017. In this post, I thought it would be worth sharing my motivations for the work I do at Our World in Data, what it's like to work here, and why you should consider working with us. It might be helpful for you if you are thinking of whether you should apply.

The Our World in Data Team

Our World in Data is a non-profit, open-access project based out of the University of Oxford. It started out as a personal project by Max Roser in 2012; since then he has managed to find a home for it at the University of Oxford, secure a stable source of funding from a range of supporters, and bring together a team of researchers and programmers. You can find more information here.

Our work is focused on developing our online publication, which aims to give a true overview of how the world is changing across a wide range of aspects including population, health, income growth and inequality, education, violence & crime, food, environment...the list goes on. You can find all of these areas on our website.

We tell the stories of global development and change through empirical data, and more importantly interactive data visualizations that users can explore for themselves. The chart below is an example from one of the aspects that I am working on at 'OWID'; here the user gets an interactive, global perspective on electricity access and how this has changed over time. This is where the magic happens: the programming team at Our World in Data do an amazing job of developing a grapher authoring tool and user interface that is not only a blessing for the research team (it's actually very straightforward for us authors to make charts like this), but allows users to explore, download, and use the data in any way they like.

Reaching a global audience is important to us: our publication is accessed from every country in the world, utilized by many different actors, and is distributed across a wide range of channels. Our 'users' include journalists, policymakers, and academics who either use our work in research, or very often also as teaching material for students across a range of levels and disciplines. This long list shows some recent coverage of our work.

Why I joined Our World in Data

The start of my journey at Our World in Data was a somewhat lucky and opportunistic one; what started from a spontaneous email of interest in the project to Max has evolved into a life-changing opportunity for me. Thankfully I had a background (in food, energy and environment) which could fill a major gap in the publication's content at the time.

But more importantly, I think, was that our underlying motivations matched perfectly. Just months before I joined Our World in Data, Hans Rosling (a pioneer in global health statistics, communication and founder of the Gapminder project) sadly passed away. I blogged about this great loss here. As it turns out, Hans was a key inspiration and mentor for Max, and Our World in Data as a result. If it were not for Hans, this project would likely not exist. Nor would I have found my way into this role in it.  We are a small team, but one driven by a similar vision and underlying motivation which Hans exemplified beautifully — to develop and communicate real global progress and global challenges through the use of data and statistics.

My background is in environment, energy, food and other related sustainability topics, and these are primarily the topics I cover. There are two key frustrations I have with my discipline, which in turn drive my motivations for working at Our World in Data. The first is the major barrier between academic output and public discourse; there is a wealth of important research housed within journal publications which are either never communicated to the public, or are communicated poorly to a non-specialist audience. As a result, many have a skewed sense of scale with regards to their environmental impact; too often they focus on small-impact behaviours and miss the large-impact ones.

My second frustration has been the failure of the environmental field to frame and contextualize environmental pressures and solutions within the wider sphere of economic and social development. I care about the environment, but I also really care about people. A perspective which fails to include people will, most likely, never be effective in driving societal-level change.

My work at Our World in Data allows me to address both of these frustrations. We have a large and diverse audience through which I can communicate the important lessons and data hidden within databases and academic journals. I would simply not reach such a large readership through traditional academic research. Plus, the project is fundamentally a publication about global development; there is really no escaping the need to consider and frame these issues within the wider development context. Max, Esteban and I read, critique and pull apart each others' work before we publish. Both are economists, so all of my work is pushed through an 'economic lens'. This is both rare and invaluable. It is a unique role I never could have imagined finding.

Benefits and downsides of working at Our World in Data

Why would you want to join our team at Our World in Data? Below I will list some of the major plus points and one potential minus. First, it's worth briefly summarising the type of person who would both thrive within this research role, and fit in well what we aim to achieve. The role is fundamentally research-based, but is really quite different from a traditional academic research role. We work at the rather unique intersection between academia, policymaking, and the general public.

If I was to summarize our role in two words it would be 'effective translation'. We take published research and global datasets and attempt to communicate these simply and visually to audiences which include both specialists from the fields and non-specialist with an interest in how the world is changing and why. As anyone who has worked with data in detail will know, this can be a complex and elaborate process: a lot of work goes into find and assessing sources; cleaning and combining data from different source; and in many cases manipulating or restandardizing variables into a form which makes sense for a general readership.

This process is therefore more challenging than it sounds: you need to be both quantitative and qualitative; you need to understand complex field-specific research, have a good overview of the research on a broad range of topics, be able to interpret large global datasets, and find a way of simplifying these research findings for a general audience. It is, in essence, a cross-over between research and journalism. If this sounds like a rewarding role for you, then you would be an ideal fit within our team! If your interests are more strongly aligned to the traditional academic pathway, then you may find it less rewarding.

The pluses and one minus of working with Our World in Data:

  • Team: We are a lovely (and of course, I am a bit biased here) bunch of people with a overwhelming passion for what we do. My sense is that all in our team would want to contribute to the project, even in the absence of a paid role. The fact that we can work full-time on this is an added (and still surreal, for me) bonus.
  • Flexibility: the project is based out of the University of Oxford, however the work can really be carried out from anywhere. We are currently a global team — this lets us find the best people without a geographical constraint. We are in constant contact electronically.
  • Audience: we receive tremendous support and engagement from our many readers. The feedback and discussion that our content generates creates a mutual learning experience between us and our readers. It is our job to publish on — sometimes polarizing — global development issues; mutual respect is not always a given online. You quickly develop a thick skin. Nonetheless, 95% of the feedback is respectful and constructive (even when in disagreement). Stimulating discussion — especially on polarizing topics — is part of our job and I have learned a lot through it.
  • Learning: people may assume that we are somewhat immune to misconceptions on global development. We aren't. My perspective is challenged every day; either when the data goes against my prior assumptions, through discussions with the other members of the team, or from the many readers we engage with. It is a personal goal to end the day slightly less ignorant than the day before. It is a humbling, yet exciting journey.

Finding a job you love, and are passionate about, is an opportunity that many never get. The perfect opportunities can be rare. If the chance to join our team as a global health and population sciences researcher sounds exciting to you, then please do get in touch and apply. We look forward to hearing from (and hopefully working with) you!