HUMANS WE HEART: DATA JOURNALIST MONA CHALABI
Want to make some semblance of sense out of the wild times we’re living in? Start by following one of our favorite British expats in NYC, Mona Chalabi. A data journalist for The Guardian, she creates art using stats about all kinds of pressing topics—think: mandatory paid vacation by country, the effectiveness of face masks in reducing infections, how Instagram affects your well-being. We were lucky enough to catch up with her and chat about everything from childhood lies to (pardon the rhyme) café spies.
Hi Mona! Mind if we start with a few getting-to-know-you questions? COFFEE ORDER:
Brown and bitter, just like me!
I always wear slutty skirts and big jumpers. Good to get the legs out.
BOOKS ON YOUR NIGHTSTAND:
Tell us a little about how you got to where you are—were you into writing and drawing when you were little? Did you love numbers?
I did really like numbers. And writing. I went through that phase (that I hope other kids went through) where I lied loads. I found some of my old weekend diaries that we submitted every Monday to the teacher. I’d write things like, “I went to the park with Jesus,” and my teacher had to be like “Now Mona, I don’t think that Jesus was around…” [laughs] So, I hope my work has become more truthful over the years.
I once told my whole kindergarten class that the Spice Girls used to come over after school, so you’re not alone there. But it certainly seems like you’re hyper-focused on the truth these days. What’s your process like when you’re creating a new visual? Does it start with the data or the image?
It usually just starts with a question—a DM from a high school teacher who’s curious about which drugs the kids in her classroom are on, or a friend who’s going through something and wants to know how many other people are dealing with something similar.
It’s so interesting that the work often begins in your DMs—have you found that your social following is extra tuned in lately? What has your relationship with your audience been like?
It’s such a privilege to have the audience I do—it sounds gross, but it’s a source of power. To give an example, I posted an illustration about COVID symptoms that did really well, and I thought, “This should exist in other languages.” So I asked my followers if they spoke other languages via a Google Form and got over 1,000 responses in a day, which led to translating the graphic into 10 languages. That’s the kind of thing you just can’t do in the same way if you don’t have a big platform.But it also sucks sometimes. Once I was in a café on the phone with my sister, talking about something that was pretty serious—I was crying to her. And as soon as I hung up, a person next to me was like, “I just wanted to say I really like your work.” They’d heard everything, everything! One of the reasons I love living in New York is the anonymity, so I don’t want to get to a place in my career where I’ve lost that.
Oh yes, social media can definitely get scary. But hopefully it’s worth it—the way you’re taking facts and making them digestible and shareable is so meaningful right now. Let’s say you have a young follower who really admires that, any advice for them if they want to do something similar?
I get asked for advice a lot, and I remember being quite junior in my career and writing to people asking for advice and never ever getting a reply. But now I kind of get it, because A) I couldn’t physically reply to everyone that reaches out and B) I don’t think I have any advice to give, other than if you’re gonna go into journalism, then aspire to truth and transparency—wherever that takes you, whatever medium you use or whichever audience you’re trying to reach. That’s it.
Hey, encouraging truth-seeking isn’t shallow advice right now. And finally, since this is our Humans We Heart series, is there someone you admire that you’d like to shout out here?
I’d like to call out a guy named Joseph Harker, who has been working at The Guardian for 30 years. On my very first day there he said hello to me, and I was like, “Oh, you don’t need to say hi, I’m just an intern.” And he laughed and said, “No, I’m still going to say hello to you.” He’s a Black journalist who has quietly been trying to shift the racism that has existed in British media for decades, with too little recognition. We’ve been having so many incredibly frustrating conversations recently, and what I keep coming back to is Joseph. When he started out, he was only one of a tiny number of non-white journalists there. He hasn’t given up. He always goes out of his way to let young journalists know he has their back. It meant so much then, it means so much now—and I just think he’s wonderful.
Thanks so much, Mona. To learn about even more wonderful people, click right here.