Why being a writer at Our World in Data has been a transformative experience

What it’s like to work at Our World in Data, and what I’ve learned along the way.

Our team is currently on the hunt for a new writer. I have had this role for several years and wanted to share why I love this work. Maybe our future colleague will have a similar trajectory as me. In any case, you might find it interesting to learn more about our work, and what motivates me personally.

I am driven by an almost insatiable appetite to make sense of what’s happening in the world. Not only for curiosity’s sake — although that’s part of it — but to understand our biggest problems and how we might solve them.

I get annoyed by questions I don’t know the answer to, and I’m restless until I figure it out. I live in a paradoxical state of being dissatisfied by the state of the world today, whilst being optimistic that we can make things better.

A decade or so ago, I tried to understand the world through the news: I’d refresh the headlines every half hour and convince myself that I was informed about what was going on. It wasn’t until I discovered the work of Hans Rosling and Gapminder that I realized my mistake.

You cannot understand the lives of 8 billion people through short-term looks at single events. To do that, you need data. It’s only through statistics that you can begin to grapple with the complexities of the world and how it’s changing. Any perspective built only on personal experiences and popular media is bound to become scattered and biased. Many of the world’s biggest problems never make the headlines. Nor do many of the great successes that transformed the lives of billions for the better.

My colleague Max Roser wrote about this in his article: The limits of our personal experience and the value of statistics.

Hans Rosling laid the foundation for why I needed to use data to understand the world. Max Roser then gave me the bricks and concrete and encouraged me to start building.

Max hired me to work with Our World in Data in 2017 when all of the team could fit into a single car. It’s hard to overstate how much I’ve learned since then.

I came from a traditional academic background. I earned a Bachelor’s degree, a Master’s degree, and a PhD in environmental and earth sciences. I followed the standard route into academia, and I could have stayed on that path.

Exceptional research often requires a narrow focus, often for many years (if not a whole career) at a time. I struggle with this. I am impatient and restless. After a few weeks or months, I tend to get obsessively interested in another topic. Or I want to look at this problem from a higher level, figuring out how it connects with other problems.

I’m glad there are so many amazing researchers out there who can do this highly focused work. Our World in Data relies entirely on them to create the jigsaw pieces that we then fit together.

I’ve also always had a passion for writing. In fact, at a crossroads before university, I nearly went down the path of studying journalism and creative writing. The problem is that public communication is rarely valued in academia (even though universities often say it’s a priority). That creates a troubling gap between those generating new insights and knowledge, and those who can turn it into action in the world — policymakers, journalists, funders, teachers, and many others.

That left me in a lurch: I needed to find a role where I could have one foot in research, and the other in public conversation.

Our World in Data has given me the perfect home to do this.

Our mission is focused on the “world’s largest problems”. Unfortunately, there are enough of those that it’s impossible to get bored of studying them.

We focus on understanding the nature of those problems and their solutions. This has transformed the way I think about challenges and communicate them. I used to be someone who could rhyme off the many terrible problems the world faced. But I stopped there. These days, I know that simply dumping big problems on someone is not that helpful in itself. Yes, you need to give someone a clear understanding of the problem. But you also need to help them see a way forward; a point of action that would help us solve it.

Our World in Data gives me the autonomy to work on the areas that I think are most important. I also have both the time and space I need to make sure I get the facts and data right. I can focus on quality, not quantity. I don’t have editors chasing end-of-day deadlines or click-bait headlines. If I want to take a month to read up on agricultural productivity in Africa, I can do so. I’m judged on my ability to produce high-quality work that informs readers about climate change, deforestation, or air pollution. If it takes two months to get it right, that’s fine.

I also get to work with an amazing group of people chasing the same goal. I learn from economists, global health experts, and political scientists. I work with data analysts who are far better at data wrangling and coding than me, letting me focus on research and writing. And we have a team of developers (who I see as magicians) who build the incredible tools that bring our work to life. My work would be nothing without these colleagues. The diversity of roles and disciplines on our team is rare. I’ve seen few organizations that combine skilled tech developers with data analysts and university academics. These people are usually worlds apart. But bringing them together in this very unusual collaboration is what makes our work here at OWID possible.

The past seven years have been an incredible learning curve. I look at some of my earliest writing and squirm. I’ve benefited a lot from the feedback of mentors. I’ve had almost immediate responses from our millions of readers; close interactions with them taught me what I hadn’t explained clearly enough, and what remaining questions people had. Writing for OWID has given me very fast feedback from world experts and policymakers — a level of reach and impact that I would struggle to match elsewhere.

I’ve learned so much from this wide network of experts and data providers. They have been generous with their time in explaining things I didn’t understand. I’ve tried to give a bigger platform to their crucial work, which rarely makes it into the spotlight. This is hard to achieve from within academia, but it’s critical if we’re to turn these insights into reality.

At the same time, I’ve gained a personal platform. Last year I gave a TED Talk. This year, I published my first book. I now spend much of my time on the radio, podcasts, and in written media discussing the massive problems that the world faces, and what we can do to solve them.

Before working at Our World in Data, I didn’t believe such a role existed. I thought I’d either have to hold on to an academic job and stuff my intellectual restlessness and frustrations into a box or leave the field entirely. I feel incredibly lucky to have found a place where these “misfit” qualities are not just tolerated but embraced.

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