Stellenbosch University
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Meet Prof Dieter, the data detective
Author: Corporate Communication & Marketing / Korporatiewe Kommunikasie & Bemarking
Published: 19/10/2023

​Prof Dieter von Fintel from the Department of Economics in the Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences at Stellenbosch University delivered his inaugural lecture on Tuesday (17 October 2023). The title of his lecture was “People, place and development: data storytelling through past and present".

Von Fintel spoke to the Corporate Communication and Marketing Division about how he uses data storytelling to not only understand why some people and places are more well-off than others, but also to uncover the impacts of modern-day policies that try to address inequalities that were inherited from the past.

Tell us more about your research and why you became interested in this specific field.

I work at the intersection of Development Economics and Economic History. That means I have two broad interests that seem very different, but they complement each other very well. Firstly, I study lessons from the past to understand why some people and places are more well-off than others, and what the economic factors are that have prevented the poorest from catching up to the wealthiest. However, I also use data to uncover the impacts of modern-day policies that try to address inequalities inherited from the past.

Economics is the perfect field for someone who likes to use both their left and right brains every day. It takes a lot of discipline to trawl through data to decipher what is going on. It is, however, extremely satisfying when insights emerge from imperfect data about unpredictable human behaviour to form a crystalised story. This is part science, part art. I see myself as a detective who pieces together lots of disparate pieces of information to package a whole story.

How would you describe the relevance of your work?

I spend a lot of time doing “irrelevant" work, such as cleaning data, estimating models, and trying to make sense out of confusion. Often nothing comes out of hours of time invested. But my work becomes relevant when a research idea is not only intensely interesting, but it can shed light on why society is where it is. It is particularly exciting when my work is also relevant to policymakers, think tanks and the media, and when I can contribute to the public discourse. My work has been used in presidential speeches and has been reported by leading international news outlets.

How does data storytelling enhance our understanding of South Africa's economic development and the inequalities that persist between different groups?

We now live in a world where there is more data than is possible to process into usable and actionable information. Data skills therefore not only help us sift the credible from the suspect, but when the detective work is done, these skills provide evidence about which policies work and which do not. They also help us to put hard numbers to things we suspect are true. However, very often data stories can lead us to new conclusions, forcing us to update our views of the world. The evidence that comes with data stories is particularly powerful in understanding how development has diverged between people and places.

What lessons does data storytelling hold for us in terms of boosting economic growth and reducing inequalities?

We live in a period where poverty reduction has been unprecedented in history. Economic growth has been one of the core engines for achieving these massive societal shifts. However, South Africa is often a special case for its unusually high levels of unemployment and inequality which hamper our progress. While I don't think there is “one solution" to these very specific problems, our data has shown that “layers" of solutions that reinforce each other can shift the dial bit by bit. This piecemeal approach can make us impatient. We can, however, take heart that other countries have escaped some of the traps we currently find ourselves in. Looking into their data and comparing our story to theirs will go a long way to improve our strategies for the way forward. The important part is to learn lessons from what the data tells us and not to stick to unhelpful beliefs and ideologies in solving our problems.

You have spent many years in the challenging environment of higher education. What keeps you motivated when things get tough?

I find it irresistible when a collaborator or a graduate student puts an exciting new idea on the table. The field of Economics has become more exciting over time – sometimes I think I need to be retrained on a daily basis to keep up with new parts of the field that are emerging. I love talking to people across disciplines, from whom economists have much to learn. I am also very encouraged when I see my students go out to make a difference in the world – especially those who move on to become better researchers and teachers than me. It reminds me that the everyday slog can have more far-reaching impacts than we know.

Tell us something exciting about yourself that people would not expect.

I love discovering new spices to cook with and to cultivate plants that can end up in a dish. I find cooking and gardening super relaxing.

How do you spend your free time?

I spend time with my wife and my boys, play a bit of piano, cook, do some gardening, and find great value in being involved with my church community.