New browser plugin stops people bamboozling you with numbers

Dictionary of Numbers provides that much needed context.

I've written before about how numbers without context are meaningless. Remember the claim that "every year in Spain alone… between 6 and 18 million birds and bats are killed by wind farms"? We're used to things that number in the millions being a lot, but without context, our intuitions can mislead us. So, for instance, if I claimed that "every year in Spain alone, between 6 and 18 million bytes of pornography are downloaded", your gut reaction might be that the Spanish are porn-hungry sex-fiends – until you realise that a moderately sized picture file is around one million bytes. That stat would in fact make Spain one of the most prudish countries in the world.

So, for the wind farm example, we found a few comparisons: in the US, power lines killed 130 million birds a year, while windows took between 100 million and almost a billion each year.

That's useful – and served to put some scaremongering at rest – but we can't all be looking up US Department of Agriculture papers when there's a potentially misleading statistic. So rejoice! For there is now a Chrome extension that can do the same thing automatically.

Dictionary of Numbers "searches through the page for numbers it can understand, and when it finds one, adds an inline explanation for that number in human terms". What that means is that a report of a forest fire destroying 297,845 acres of land is followed up by a little square bracket telling you "[≈ Hong Kong]"; something 100m high is [≈ height of the Statue of Liberty (foundation of pedestal to torch)].

As Glen Chiacchieri, the developer of the extension, writes:

One could write Dictionary of Numbers off as a tool for mathematically-inclined folk, but the fact is that understanding and reasoning about numbers is an essential part of modern society. After all, it's important to know just how much of the United States was on fire.

Sadly, the extension doesn't yet have any comparisons for the figure "8 million birds", so when it comes to dealing with the critiques of climate sceptics, we're still going to have to do it the old-fashioned way. And while it's handy for money in dollars, pound sterling leaves it upset and confused. But there's a third problem with the plugin, as well. As Randall Munroe reports:

It can also come across as unexpectedly judgmental. Glen told me about complaint he got from a user: “I installed your extension and then forgot about it … until I logged into my bank account. Apparently my total balance is equal to the cost of a low-end bicycle. Thanks.”

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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I was wrong about Help to Buy - but I'm still glad it's gone

As a mortgage journalist in 2013, I was deeply sceptical of the guarantee scheme. 

If you just read the headlines about Help to Buy, you could be under the impression that Theresa May has just axed an important scheme for first-time buyers. If you're on the left, you might conclude that she is on a mission to make life worse for ordinary working people. If you just enjoy blue-on-blue action, it's a swipe at the Chancellor she sacked, George Osborne.

Except it's none of those things. Help to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme is a policy that actually worked pretty well - despite the concerns of financial journalists including me - and has served its purpose.

When Osborne first announced Help to Buy in 2013, it was controversial. Mortgage journalists, such as I was at the time, were still mopping up news from the financial crisis. We were still writing up reports about the toxic loan books that had brought the banks crashing down. The idea of the Government promising to bail out mortgage borrowers seemed the height of recklessness.

But the Government always intended Help to Buy mortgage guarantee to act as a stimulus, not a long-term solution. From the beginning, it had an end date - 31 December 2016. The idea was to encourage big banks to start lending again.

So far, the record of Help to Buy has been pretty good. A first-time buyer in 2013 with a 5 per cent deposit had 56 mortgage products to choose from - not much when you consider some of those products would have been ridiculously expensive or would come with many strings attached. By 2016, according to Moneyfacts, first-time buyers had 271 products to choose from, nearly a five-fold increase

Over the same period, financial regulators have introduced much tougher mortgage affordability rules. First-time buyers can be expected to be interrogated about their income, their little luxuries and how they would cope if interest rates rose (contrary to our expectations in 2013, the Bank of England base rate has actually fallen). 

A criticism that still rings true, however, is that the mortgage guarantee scheme only helps boost demand for properties, while doing nothing about the lack of housing supply. Unlike its sister scheme, the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, there is no incentive for property companies to build more homes. According to FullFact, there were just 112,000 homes being built in England and Wales in 2010. By 2015, that had increased, but only to a mere 149,000.

This lack of supply helps to prop up house prices - one of the factors making it so difficult to get on the housing ladder in the first place. In July, the average house price in England was £233,000. This means a first-time buyer with a 5 per cent deposit of £11,650 would still need to be earning nearly £50,000 to meet most mortgage affordability criteria. In other words, the Help to Buy mortgage guarantee is targeted squarely at the middle class.

The Government plans to maintain the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, which is restricted to new builds, and the Help to Buy ISA, which rewards savers at a time of low interest rates. As for Help to Buy mortgage guarantee, the scheme may be dead, but so long as high street banks are offering 95 per cent mortgages, its effects are still with us.