Callum Thomson strives to make the complex simple

“There’s something about making tricky concepts easy to understand.”

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Playing the piano at the level that Callum Thomson did requires an enormous attention to detail. Day after day he would sit down at a piano, and play for hours, trying to work out the best way to bring the music to life — striving for a level of perfection that was never quite attainable. This intense focus, and dealing with the pressure of needing to perform on stage, is what propelled him through his impressive career.

What started with a degree in music, ended up as a job as the head of data journalism at the Office for National Statistics (ONS). An unlikely journey as this may seem, it starts to make more sense when you dig a bit deeper.

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Callum on stage at age 21.

At the ONS, Callum manages a team of seven people, which handles everything from writing news articles to managing social media accounts. As a journalist, he will often spot interesting stories hiding in the stats collected by the organisation. In the article “Being 18 in 2018” for example, he combines data on several different topics to explain how the lives of 18-year-olds in 2018 look very different from those of the generation before them.

“There’s something about making tricky concepts easy to understand”, Callum explains as he tries to put a finger on what it is that connects the different aspects of his professional life.

In a previous job, Callum made music programmes for the BBC and his goal would always be to make classical music more accessible, despite its reputation as being difficult to get into. To a certain extent it wasn’t that different from his current position. Only instead of compositions he now tries to make complex datasets understandable to the general public. “Fundamentally it’s a democratic exercise. It’s about opening up the facts to as many people as possible”, he says.

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With a little imagination, this ability and the desire to take a complex idea and transform it so that it can be understood by most people, can even be seen in his musical career. For what is music, if not the translation of abstract thoughts and emotions into something that can be experienced viscerally through the medium of sound.

Even as the head of data journalism at ONS, Callum feels that he can improve. And that’s why he’s joining me and a number of others on a data journalism course at Birmingham City University starting next week. He hopes to gain the skills needed to work on data-driven stories more independently, so that he can tell these stories without needing to hunt down a collaborator with the right skillset first. “It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, and I think it will be really beneficial”, he explained.

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