So often, perhaps too often, we read along with various facts and figures on our computer screens, process the data, and then look to the next topic. Every once in a while though, something will jump out at us and remind us how much facts are (only) relative.
A Picture of Housing Starts
I like receiving the monthly SBC US and Canada Housing Starts email because it offers a convenient snapshot of reality. Bringing the data to me on a regular basis, it provides me with a look at certain numbers as well as trends. But, when glancing at the latest email shortly after it arrived in my inbox, I uttered an audible “whoa.”
For the June data released on July 17, housing starts rose in the Northeast by 114.3%. Yes, that is one hundred fourteen point three percent. My first thought: how much is the absolute number? My second thought: how bad was the absolute number in the month before??
Percents and Relative Numbers
So often, perhaps too often, we are encouraged to make our decisions based “on the numbers.” While that is not a bad idea, it may be a narrow idea. That’s because numbers without context are no more valuable than context without numbers. Does the 114.3% mean a huge growth in terms of what would be typical for this time of year? Does it reflect an admirable recovery after a devastating collapse? The number alone only piques our interest and gets us to start thinking. There is much more to this story than the number itself.
This episode has me thinking that I too need to remember to glance up a little more, dig a little deeper, and think a little longer about some things that would be easier to take at face value. Numbers are wonderful measures and tools, but they will never be the end of the story.