Learning to Love Data

To kick off my 5 Days, 5 Themes project, I’ll start with a guiding principle that has shaped my work over the past years.

Whether or not we have the confidence or the pedigree to do so, we all owe it to ourselves (and each other) to get comfortable working with data.

I don’t mean we all need to go back to school to earn degrees in data science. I do mean that if more people had some basic understanding of the process of measuring the world and an awareness of how meaning is derived from those measurements the world would be a little better.

Here’s what I mean: when non-data scientists get involved in the world of numbers, they are able to make their own work richer, because they can tap into new veins of insights. I learned this when I first started working with web analytics many years ago. Just seeing the charts depicting people’s behaviors — the most elementary sort of web analysis — made the conversations I was having with individual community members more meaningful. I began to understand how one person’s story could illuminate the actions of many others, and I could talk to people in person to understand more about the trends I was seeing in the visitor data. For me, it was like how learning another language made travel more enjoyable, allowing me to understand and integrate concepts that otherwise would have been outside my grasp.

Caring about data extends beyond the work we do into the role of data in our lives. That could mean taking a more active stance around such issues as surveillance and net neutrality, or it could mean that you develop an interest in understanding how ad targeting works so that you can choose how much information advertisers have about you. Helping more people be active participants in our increasingly monitored world has the potential to significantly change how organizations and governments collect data and make decisions based off of it.

For inspiration on data literacy and advocacy, two organizations to watch are Data & Society Research Institute and DataKind.

Tune in tomorrow for The Story of Hybrid Insights to learn more about how I’ve learned to love data and how I’ve helped other people love it, too.

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