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Five requirements for reporting complex data

The parallel between reporting on Corona statistics and reporting in business

Reporting and storytelling

Benchmarking KPIs

Covid-19

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We are currently confronted with all kinds of statistics and graphs about the Corona epidemic. Especially the charts of Flourish have become a contemporary guidance in these difficult times. Flourish is a software product from a London company involved in data visualization.

New charts are published daily in order to tell a clear story to the laymen among us. It is not because the number of deaths peaks that we have to panic that the crisis is getting worse. No, if we compare this graph with the graph of the number of admissions or people in intensive care, everyone sees that we are in a downward trend.

Reporting and storytelling

The graph where the number of patients in intensive care is compared to the maximum number of available beds on intensive care is also reassuring. Especially if these graphs are also expertly explained by specialists from the crisis center. It is no coincidence that the London company was founded by a scientist and a storytelling man.

What is striking in the Belgian statistics is that the graphs have now been corrected twice for new data that has been added because that data only became available a few days later, which leads to unsightly fault lines in the graphs in order to return to the current position. 

And now there is a lot of discussion about a sinister ratio (KPI) "number of deaths due to Corona per million inhabitants". At first sight, this appears to be higher in Belgium than in other countries. But our virologists appease the population that this KPI is calculated in a different way in the other countries. On the other hand, there are several factors that can confirm that the benchmark for our country is bad.

The parallel with business

First and foremost: reporting figures is nothing without a solidly substantiated story. If the crisis center and the media do not provide a nuanced explanation of the figures, even the most beautiful graphs would lead to incorrect conclusions.

Secondly, discussions arise because the 'master data' of the graphs and the definition of the concepts are ambiguous. For example, in Belgium, deceased civilians are included in the figures of Corona victims, even if the determination was not made in a hospital. This is not the case in other countries. And how can we be sure that all victims outside the hospital are included? The quality of the 'master data' is questionable and an underestimation of the figures seems clear (and certainly in the other countries).

Benchmarking KPIs is always difficult because the methodology of the calculation must be coordinated between the organizations (or countries) you are comparing. And a benchmark comparison in business is actually even more difficult than the above exercise. Certainly about the numerator of the fracture (the number of deaths), at first sight, there is not much discussion. The denominator is also an official figure.

Many business benchmarks are based on financial figures. But which figures are we talking about? For example, we take the KPI "number of employees per million euros turnover". The calculation of the counter will already lead to discussion, because will we take interim employees into account or not? Interim workers are posted to a different account than the employees on the payroll. The turnover will also have to be clearly defined. Do we take the turnover that is accounted for or, do we take the turnover that is contractually committed? We book turnover under BEGaap or under IFRS…

Finally, the process must be clearly agreed: on the basis of which protocol is a victim categorized as a Corona victim? And how and when are these numbers forwarded to the FPS Healthcare? In the report of the FPS Healthcare, we read that the "reporting by hospitals is not the same every day". In a large company with foreign offices, the figures from different countries must be forwarded to the head office, which must consolidate the figures. It is quite possible that a different local chart of accounts will be used in these countries and that the figures will be given a different interpretation. Cooperation from foreign branches and the various accounting systems are elements that make it more difficult to report in business. The same complexity can be found in the statistics of, among others, John Hopkins University, which tracks and reports the evolution of Covid19 worldwide.

Reporting systems and visualization techniques, no matter how good they are, are not enough to properly explain reports.

Conclusion: Benchmarking is a profession in itself

The broad field of reporting has made great strides in recent decades through better reporting systems and better visualization techniques. But the systems alone are not enough to properly explain reports. You need specialists who can also tell a clear story.

Reporting complex data requires the combination of good definitions of master data and processes in order to unambiguously collect this data. Otherwise, discussion arises and hasty decisions are made. Benchmarking is a profession in itself.

However, even if the reported data are not calculated 100% correctly, they remain relevant. We see the trends and already know, for example, that we have passed the peak. With these trends, we have to make decisions and continue to work without losing time with unnecessary discussions that the figures are not entirely correct.

Serge Vigoureux is Blue Chip Boutique Leader of Management Information &; Systems, a specific unit of TriFinance that focuses on reporting and visualization, among other things.

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