Get To Know: Mona Chalabi

Mona Chalabi, according to her Twitter bio, is trying to take the numb out of numbers. She's Data Editor at The Guardian US and an illustrator, working to demystify complex real-world statistics by translating raw numbers into easily digestible drawings. They're often funny, sometimes a little whimsical, and she's not afraid to get a bar chart made of penises involved, but Mona doesn't shy away from visual representations of the heavy stuff either. Some of her most hard hitting work of recent weeks has dealt with US gun control policy, and rates of unreported sexual assault. Mona's drawings have helped us at The Tung understand a lot more about the world we live in by giving us an easy way to understand general trends, rather than by asking us to remember percentages to the nearest decimal point.

We love her approach, so we got in touch to ask her about how she got to where she is, how she feels about the US right now, and how we can do our bit to get to grips with the tough numbers and enable ourselves to have a better understanding what's going on in these unstable times.

Hi Mona! Okay, first things first: we've noticed that you’ve had a lot of different, great jobs in a lot of different areas - how did they lead you to what you’re doing now? 

Ha, yes a typical millennial I suppose! I used to feel ashamed of all that job-hopping but now I see how crucial it was to get me to where I am. This journey looks something like:

Consultant at the International Organisation for Migration (I learned about statistics and made a bunch of mistakes about how to communicate them.)
A bunch of work experience placements in journalism (I learned about journalism but also loads about managing your money as a freelancer. I was living in a disgusting cockroach-infested bedsit with shared showers and trying to make money in a crappy consultancy job so that I could work for free in journalism. I think that experience makes me feel less ashamed in asking for money for my work.)
Where I am now - Data Editor at Guardian US. I’m still learning every day about how to communicate the most accurate information possible to the widest audience possible. 

©  Mona Chalabi

© Mona Chalabi

It's a really impressive journey! So, how do you go about rooting out the statistics you need? 

It totally varies! Sometimes people send them to me, sometimes I stumble upon them and sometimes it takes weeks to find a dataset and turn it into a useable format.

...and once you've found the stats you need, how long does the process of translating a stat into a drawing take? 

It depends on how many times I get it wrong. If the first draft works, I can get the whole thing done in as little as 15 minutes. But if I need to go through lots of different drafts it takes longer – and even longer if it’s for print, if it’s a detailed illustration or I want to animate it. That can take a couple of days. 

The process itself must give you some time to really digest the information yourself. How has having a handle on data changed your perception of politics? 

The numbers show just how little the political system cares about minorities. 

©  Mona Chalabi

© Mona Chalabi

Yeah, the evidence is pretty overwhelming right? Are we right in thinking you’re New York based right now? How has the transition from London to the US East coast been? It’s a pretty intense time to be living in America...

I am! It’s been really difficult at times if I’m honest. But ultimately, immigrating involves a lot of translation (even when you move to a place that speaks the same language as you!) and journalism is all about translating ideas. 

Obviously things are a bit mad in the UK too - do you have any plans to start illustrating UK-based stats as well? We need some help over here!

I’ll always think about the UK! And I always take requests too – if people have a question about statistics or some numbers that they want to see visualized they should message me! 

©  Mona Chalabi

© Mona Chalabi

We definitely have some requests! What advice would you give someone who’s finding the government-issued numbers all a bit much? How can we start to demystify the stats ourselves?  

I explain loads of concrete suggestions here but my biggest tip is you can’t be intimidated if you want to hold power to account. 

What’s your absolute favourite thing to draw? 


Favourite statistic? 

It changes all the time. I really don’t know - most of them are depressing to be honest. Like heterosexual men get 2.3 bonus years.  

Least favourite statistic? 

I recently illustrated the fact that more Americans have died because of guns since 1968 than have died because of war ever – that one really stuck with me. 

Favourite Tweeter? 

I sort of love @sosadtoday and @pakalupapito

…and now for the big one: cats or dogs? 

Dogs as friends, cats as colleagues.


Thanks Mona! Check out her superlative Twitter feed here. You won't regret it. 

Top photo credit: Ashley Batz