Stories through pebbles

A few months ago I spent some time volunteering with Syrian refugees in Budapest, Hungary. The memory of the experience is forever imprinted in my mind. So much so, that whenever I come across news to do with the refugee crises, I am compelled to read it through the lens of someone who has spent hours talking with these brave souls about their unimaginable journeys from what were once their homes and safe havens.

I recently came across the work of a Syrian artist Nizar Ali Badr. Hailing from the historical Syrian port city of Latakia, Nizar’s latest works of art are based on  pebbles and stones found in his town of residence. A recent corpus of his work is based on the theme of the Syrian refugee crisis – a  situation quite literally close to his heart.

Nizar’s work “transmits the pain of the people who have to die, to suffer, to leave the country, but also… a hope for the revival of the country, the return of human values – love, home, family.” I believe his pieces of art speak louder than words; his work is painfully accurate in its portrayals of the emotions and physical tribulations that refugees have to endure.

The incredible power of Nizar’s wordless visualisations of human suffering and migration due to war are made even more poignant by the fact that they are made from Syrian pebbles and stones.  Nizar himself is a man of a few words, saying on his Facebook page, “”I love the dust and stones from Syria. My message is a humanitarian message.”

I leave you to absorb a few of his works.

Saneeya Qureshi © 2016

Spurious correlations

A chance conversation with my two dear friends Tor and Sarah (who are massive football fans) brought my attention to a popular and bizarre theory making its rounds about the ‘Grim Reaper of Football.’ Apparently – and the statistics prove it – whenever Aaron Ramsey the Arsenal midfielder scores a goal, a celebrity or famous personality dies. Most recent evidence being the passing of David Bowie barely 24 hours after Aaron scored a goal. So strong is the correlation, that there have been numerous articles written (examples here, here and here) and even a Facebook page dedicated to discussing and dissecting the ‘Ramsey Effect‘ of poor Aaron who is understandably not amused.

After many minutes of giggles with Tor and Sarah though, conversation turned to how correlations can – and indeed, have – been created between the most inane occurrences.  I vividly recall how in one researcher development  workshop on data interpretation, I learnt about the ‘10 weirdest things linked to Autism.’ Among them, maternal factors which include getting an infection during pregnancy; not getting an infection during pregnancy; being pregnant near freeways and other dubitable factors:

Source: E.J. Willingham, “10 Weirdest Things  Ever Linked to Autism,”

However, one of my all-time favourite questionable statistical relationships (aka spurious relationship) is that of per capita cheese consumption correlated with the number of people who died by becoming tangled in their bedsheets. Yes! – apparently the CDC in America collects data on people who become tangled in their bedsheets. (Note to self: Must thank my boss for allowing me to manage more, ahem, robustly evidence-based research projects!)

I could, of course, go on and on about other entertaining correlations that have been developed over the years. However, as with any good idea, I have been beaten to the punch by an entire book being dedicated to the subject; I highly recommend ‘Spurious Correlations’ for a riveting and hilarious read. For now, I’ll leave you with this bemusing statistical visual of the number of people who drowned by falling into a pool correlated with the number of films that Nicholas Cage appeared in that particular year… oh dear!

Saneeya Qureshi © 2016



What matters to you?

Since 2011, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has undertaken research within OECD member countries which compared wellbeing across the world. The Better Life Index, which resulted from the project, depicts the results in the form of ‘flowers’ in which each flower depicts a country, and each petal represents a topic. Although visually very appealing, one should approach the data with caution, because it is based on voluntarily-submitted data, which means the participants are self-selected. Therefore, the results indicated in the Better Life Index are not necessarily representative of the views of the global population, and indeed, could be argued to represent mainly those with an internet connection.

Nevertheless, the OECD has extracted further data from the Better Life Index study, and developed an interactive map illustrating ‘What matters most to people around the world.’ Among those in OECD countries that have used the tool, health narrowly beats general life satisfaction as the topic people identify as most important to them. Although interesting to browse through, I’d argue two caveats whilst looking at the map: firstly, some of the terms used to define the parameters are rather vague, for instance, “life satisfaction”; and secondly, the number of respondents varies greatly from country to country.

The ‘What Matters to you?’ map makes for a thought-provoking point of reference when one considers that later this year in September 2015, the UN will meet to finalise the new framework for global development priorities 2015-2030. This week the ‘zero draft of the outcome document‘ was published of 17 goals and 169 targets. The accompanying image on the left (which you can click on for larger legible version) illustrates a more user-friendly summary of the overall framework. On a personal note, I am disappointed to see no mention made of the educational needs of those with disabilities and/or those living in war-ravaged countries. I fear the danger of a whole generation of children growing up amongst strife, not being given educational opportunities in any form, so as to enable them to break to vicious cycle of poverty or the state of civic unrest within which they live.

What are your thoughts? Do you agree with the results depicted in OECD research? Do you think UN goals and targets reflect global (not just OECD member countries’) priorities? Do you think that 17 targets and 169 goals are enough to meet the needs of over 7 billion people? What matters to you?

Saneeya Qureshi © 2015

More and better

As children throughout the world awake each morning to face yet another day, they do so under such different circumstances that it is hard to imagine. Some children wake up in a comfortable bed with a certainty of three meals that day; are healthy, being educated; have a say in their life; and have access to many amenities among other things. Approximately one-fifth of the world’s children however, are less fortunate, with little or no shelter, contented if they have one meal in that day; their parents are unemployed, their health is poor and their prospects for a better life are very bleak.

Like some say, no one who has not experienced poverty will know what it feels like to retire home to a footpath at night or no home at all, having been on the roads begging all day, tired and hungry; to know that the only water one can drink or bathe in is full of pathogens; not to be able to go to school or play unburdened with worries and fears. Such is the reality for millions of children every day.

A recent article on the Global Partnership for Education site caught my interest as it brought attention to the educational plight of children who are displaced from their homes as a result of crises, conflict and/or natural disasters. The statistics are staggering: 175 million* children being affected by environmental disasters annually, and at least a further 15 million** children displaced or living as refugees every year, making up part of the estimated 230 million** children who live in countries and areas affected by armed conflicts.

In the face of such alarming numbers, Save the Children has published a May 2015 report titled, ‘More and Better: Global action to improve funding, support and collaboration for education in emergencies‘ which recommends three principles for supporting the education of children during emergencies, crises and conflicts:

  1. More and better funding

  2. More and better support

  3. More and better collaboration and commitment

The report states: “Doing all of this will be essential if we have any chance of ensuring the children affected by conflict, natural disasters and pandemic diseases are to enjoy  their right to an inclusive and equitable quality education.”

I welcome the publication of this report, with cautious optimism as it comes to world attention at a critical juncture for global educational goals. Indeed, last week, a new global education goal was proposed at the World Education Forum in Korea. This new ambitious goal replaces the education Millennium Development Goal (MDG) and will become part of the Sustainable Development Goals. It proposes to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote life-long learning opportunities for all.”

My hope is that whatever the final wording of the goal and its related parameters of achievement, due attention will also be given to the education of children whose lives are affected by natural disasters, war and strife.



Saneeya Qureshi © 2015

Data visualisation for dummies

Being a researcher, and having to frequently consider visually appealing and eloquent manners of representing data, I am an avid visitor to the website Visualising Data, having also previously written about it in my blog post, “An interactive visualisation of missing data.” Lacking a formal background in graphic design, however, I am sometimes stumped when it comes to developing my own user-friendly graphics for work purposes, and I find myself constantly going back to the good ol’ reliable ‘graphs and charts’ option in Microsoft Office.

Luckily now, for dummies such as myself, the founder of Visualising Data, has been working on a research project called ‘Seeing Data‘, a 15 month study funded by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council and led by Professor Helen Kennedy from the University of Sheffield. One of the outcomes of this project is the website Seeing Data.

This website is a godsend for those of us who sometimes struggle with the technicalities involved in developing illustrative ways of depicting data. Sections such as Understanding Data Visualisations, with an easy to navigate menu formatted as a commonly asked questions, as incredibly useful and informative. They even have a quick self-test that you can attempt under the section ‘Top 5 things to look for,’ so you can self-assess your understanding of the elements of a visual representation of data.

One of the findings of this project that I found particularly interesting, is how each of us as individuals, brings our existing beliefs and opinions to bear on a visualisation, which in turn has effects on the manner in which we approach it. And interesting exercise that depicts this can be found on the ‘Rate these visualisations’ page.

Did you explore the website? Did you attempt the interactive exercises? What are your opinions of data visualisations? I’d love for you to share or signpost me to some other good interactive online examples that you may know of.

Saneeya Qureshi © 2015

Lights out!

Tomorrow from 8.30-9.30pm GMT I will be switching off all my electronic devices, and literally all the lights around the house. For one hour, I intend to bask in the solitude of quiet darkness as I do my little bit to celebrate Earth Hour 2015.

Earth Hour, initiated by the WWF in 2007 in Australia, is now a global annual event where millions of people switch off their lights for sixty minutes to acknowledge climate change and to show that they care about our planet. It’s about people from across the globe coming together to create a symbolic and spectacular lights out display and asking for change. It happens every year between 8.30 and 9.30pm local time, depending on wherever in the world you are, with switch offs starting in Samoa and finishing in Tahiti. The scope of the celebration grows exponentially every year, with 2014 being  “the biggest Earth Hour yet“.

The event is not without its critics and detractors. However, as per the The Earth Hour Global FAQs:

Earth Hour does not purport to be an energy/carbon reduction exercise, it is a symbolic action. Therefore… (there is no engagement with) the measurement of energy/carbon reduction levels for the hour itself. Earth Hour is an initiative to encourage individuals, businesses and governments around the world to take accountability for their ecological footprint and engage in dialogue and resource exchange that provides real solutions to our environmental challenges. Participation in Earth Hour symbolises a commitment to change beyond the hour.

And indeed, evidence indicates that the knock-on effects of commemorating Earth Hour ripple across the globe much beyond the sixty minutes of commemoration (hence the 60+ in the Earth Hour logo), but that more concrete measures need to be taken at grassroots levels to sustain the impact. A 2014 study on the ‘Electricity Impacts of Earth Hour‘ published in the Journal of Energy Research and Social Science compiled 274 measurements of observed changes in electricity demand caused by Earth Hour in 1 low-GDP and 9 high-GDP countries, spanning 6 years, and found that the events reduced electricity consumption an average of 4%. The study noted the policy challenge of converting Earth Hour’s short-term energy saving into longer-term actions, including sustained changes in behavior and investment.

I, for one, will try to assuage my guilty conscience (being perpetually connected to my electronic devices!) by switching them all off for this one hour, and who knows… perhaps the peace and tranquility that I find in those sixty minutes will inspire me to endeavour to make this a regular facet of my daily routine. Are you planning to take part in Earth Hour too? Do you think it is a meaningful activity? I’d love to know your thoughts, especially if you disagree.

Saneeya Qureshi © 2015

Fifty shades of Parliament

I was privileged to be invited for a visit to the Houses of Parliament in London this past week. Besides meeting with an MP (whose name I shall refrain from mentioning, lest I be associated with his political affiliations!) to discuss issues about youth justice and education, I was also fortunate to be present inside the House of Lords during the historical debate and vote which resulted in the UK becoming the first country in the world to approve laws allowing the creation of babies from three people.

However, even more thrilling than that, was the opportunity that I had to see one of only four remaining manuscripts of the original Magna Carta (the one usually held in the Salisbury Cathedral), on display in the House of Lords. The exhibition was part of commemorations to mark the 800th anniversary of the document, drawn up in 1215, which laid the foundations of the rule of law on the precept of “To no one deny or delay right or justice.”

Although the Magna Carta (Latin for ‘the Great Charter’) carries little legal weight in present day Britain, as most of its clauses have been repealed and relevant rights ensured by other statutes, it has come to symbolise the struggle for universal enfranchisement. Wilfred Lewis Warren, a renowned English medieval historian observed in his biography of the monarch in power at the time, *King John, that “many who knew little and cared less about the content of the Charter have, in nearly all ages, invoked its name, and with good cause, for it meant more than it said.”

The Magna Carta and Parliament exhibition in the majestic and awe-inspiring Queen’s Robing Room within the House of Lords at the Palace of Westminster also featured other land-mark documents including the Petition of Right (1628), Habeas Corpus Act (1679), the Bill of Rights (1689) (image on the left – click to enlarge it), the Great Reform Act (1832) and the Human Rights Act (1998). It was incredibly thrilling to see these historical original documents, in all their worn and greyed glory, with the ink fading, smudged and splattered in some places. Unfortunately though, photography is not permitted within either House of Parliament, and so I have no personal images to share.

The display is part of a year-long programme of cultural events, activities, education and online resources delivered by the House of Commons and the House of Lords – 2015: Parliament in the Making. Do explore the website as there are a variety of interesting resources there for all ages and interests, including a schedule of events planned around the UK.

*Warren, W. L. (1990). King John. London, UK: Methuen. ISBN 978-0413455208.

Saneeya Qureshi © 2015

“My hovercraft is full of eels”

February 21 is the UN-proclaimed International Mother Language Day. It is a day that has been commemorated since 2000, and represents the day in 1952 when Bangladeshi students demonstrating for recognition of their language, Bangla, as one of the two national languages of the then-Pakistan, were shot and killed by police in Dhaka. The Day promotes linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism.

This year, I find the day to be particularly significant, as the theme for 2015 is ‘Inclusive Education through and with Language – Language Matters.’ The theme relates to a cause close to my heart, and also my doctoral studies – inclusive education. The United Nations maintains that:

“Languages are the most powerful instruments of preserving and developing our tangible and intangible heritage. All moves to promote the dissemination of mother tongues will serve not only to encourage linguistic diversity and multilingual education but also to develop fuller awareness of linguistic and cultural traditions throughout the world and to inspire solidarity based on understanding, tolerance and dialogue.”

This statement made me pause to reflect on what I consider to be my own ethnic language. Although both my parents’ families are many generations removed from the Punjab area of the Northern Subcontinent, I have grown up in Kenya. I speak Swahili and English with my father; French, Urdu/Hindi and English with my mother; Swahili, English and Urdu/Hindi with my brother; and a mixture of Urdu/Hindi, English, Swahili, French and Punjabi with other family and friends.  My grasp of Punjabi – which should presumably be my mother tongue – is woefully lacking compared with my command over Urdu and Hindi.

Nevertheless,  I would like to think, that even though I cannot proudly say that I am fluent in my own mother language, my multilingual background and experiences mean that I posses a broader cultural awareness and tolerance. Indeed, I believe that this diversity has fed my hunger for discussion and knowledge about the unique linguistic heritage of others around me, which is in fact, evidenced through some of my posts on this blog.

Memrise, an online language-learning tool recently launched their celebration of the 2015 International Mother Language Day. Their aim is to “do justice to a celebration of the glory and diversity of human language by inviting submissions of a phrase that represents both the joys and laughter, and yet also the frustrations of trying to learn another language.” Their chosen phrase “My hovercraft is full of eels” made me guffaw when I explored the origins of this seemingly-bizarre phrase.

This phrase was first used in a sketch set in England about a badly translated English-Hungarian phrasebook from the British TV comedy show, Monty Python’s Flying Circus. For the benefit of those who are unable to access youtube, a brief transcript of the relevant section is as follows:

A Hungarian tourist goes into a cigar shop looking for a box of matches, but doesn’t speak English, so he brings a badly-written phrasebook with him. When he tries to ask for matches, he ends up saying “My hovercraft is full of eels?”

Tourist: “Ah, ah, my hovercraft is full of eels?”
Clerk: “What?”
Tourist (points to matches): “My hovercraft is full of eels!”
Clerk (picks up matches): “Oh, this?”
Tourist: “Yes!”

And thus was born the comical “My hovercraft is full of eels.” Do feel free to contribute towards Memrise’s dream of creating the worlds’ largest collection of videos of people saying this rib-tickling phrase in their respective mother languages at this page.

Saneeya Qureshi © 2015

‘Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number’

I was thrilled to read a recent news item on the BBC website about a ninety-year old Kenyan great-grandmother, Priscilla Sitienei, who enrolled for classes in her local primary school five years ago, and is still learning today.

Gogo, as Priscilla is affectionately known, speaks of the plethora of challenges regarding inclusive education in countries such as Kenya, where incidentally, I am also from. Gender disparity in education, in particular, is still rife in rural areas, despite strong drives towards the ‘Achieve Universal Primary Education’ Millennium Development Goal (MDG).

The MDGs are eight international development goals or “collective priorities” that were officially established following the Millennium Summit of the United Nations (UN) in 2000. All UN member states agreed to achieve the following by the year 2015:

  1. eradicating extreme poverty and hunger,
  2. achieving universal primary education,
  3. promoting gender equality and empowering women
  4. reducing child mortality rates,
  5. improving maternal health,
  6. combating HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases,
  7. ensuring environmental sustainability, and
  8. developing a global partnership for development.

Various countries were at differing stages in terms of achievement of each respective goal as detailed at a review meeting of the UN General Assembly in 2010, and summarised in this interactive map. Unfortunately, I cannot seem to find more recent information. Suffice to say, now that we have entered 2015, none of the goals have been met on a global scale. At the Rio+20 Conference, held in Brazil in 2012, in view of this impending non-achievement, world leaders, and other organisational representatives developed a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which build upon the MDGs and converge with the Post-2015 Development Agenda.

The final MDG report is expected in July 2015, and later in September 2015, a MDG Gap Task Force Report will be published at the same time as the ‘Special Summit on Sustainable Development’, where world leaders will adopt the Post-2015 Development Agenda. It is hoped that consultations coordinated by the UN Development Group will focus on financing and other means of implementation at the national, regional and global level. This is particularly significant for countries such as Kenya, where there are a plethora of socio-cultural and economic issues that impact the most well-intentioned development initiatives.

Nonetheless, stories, such as Gogo’s  serve as hopeful examples of the potential for the goals to be achieved, and indeed, for inclusion – in all its forms – to become regular practice in schools around the world. For Gogo, ‘Age ain’t nothing but a number’, as crooned by Aaliyah, albeit in a different context. Anyone who wants to learn, should be given the opportunity to do so. I am certain that Gogo’s school peers must be learning invaluable life lessons from her, just as she learns through them.

I think it significant to point out therefore, that inclusion must be purposeful. Pupils – no matter what age they are – should spend time in school not just for the sake of ticking a ‘Development Goal achieved’ box, but with the objective of  the holistic development and qualitative expansion of their skills, to empower them as self-sufficient citizens, not just on a national, but also on a global basis.  Verily, as Gogo says, “Education will be your wealth.”

Saneeya Qureshi © 2015

I am iSelf

A dear friend of mine recently signposted me to this piece in The Times about how smartphones have now become second-nature to individuals and their self-identity. The article is based on a research project which was reported by Russell B. Clayton and his colleagues in the Journal of Computer Mediated Communication*. I had a good chuckle when I read it, because it describes me to a T.

Yes – I am iSelf.

Clayton et al. opine that “negative psychological and physiological outcomes are associated with iPhone separation and the inability to answer one’s ringing iPhone during cognitive tasks.”  Thankfully, I can handle not being able to answer my during activities that prohibit such a disruption. However, I do not fare well at all when it comes to being separated from my beloved iPhone. Examples of such distressing detachments include getting to work and realising I’ve forgotten my iPhone at home (happened only once because the icy roads distracted me); inadvertently leaving my phone in the office whilst I went for lunch at the work cafeteria (has happened multiple times, and on those days, I usually get lunch to go and then hastily return to eat it in the office); leaving my phone at home whilst I popped into the corner shop near my house (although I realised this just after leaving the house, forced myself not to go back, then got to the shop and remembered that my shopping list was on my phone. Oh the irony!). In all these varied situations, the common thread was that my iSelf was unable to concentrate or function as per my usual optimal standards, because of the restless feeling and anxiety associated with forgetting my phone.

Such traumatic incidents serve only to underline my dependency on this ‘fifth limb’ of mine. Those who know me well, know that I use my phone for everything – from a plethora of work-related matters, such as the app which converts book barcodes into ready-formatted references; to personal entertainment resources such as the Hello! app from which I get my daily dose of celebrity gossip; to social tools, such as FaceTime, which impressively, even my grandmother now knows how to operate.

In fact, my iSelf is so attached to my iPhone, that I have the nocuous habit of checking things on it just before bedtime. Yes, I am one of those people to whom the cartoon on the right most certainly applies – made worse by the fact that I have the mammoth version of the recent iPhone, thus making me a perpetual victim of multiple incidents of   and .

So I can well empathise with the participants in the study, as well as concur with the research findings: being separated from our smartphones does indeed markedly impact the attention we give towards daily interactions.  I’d be interested to know if any of the readers of my blog have similar or differing thoughts and experiences. Do you have an iSelf identity too? Please do share.

* Clayton, R. B., Leshner, G. and Almond, A. (2015), The Extended iSelf: The Impact of iPhone Separation on Cognition, Emotion, and Physiology. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication. doi: 10.1111/jcc4.12109

Saneeya Qureshi © 2015