The data advantage

For those of you who know me, you know that I am passionate about digital literacy and data fluency. Why? Because data is everywhere, and knowing how to access, assess, and deploy it can make your life better in a meaningful way. This point was brought home to me in a jolt the other day.

One of the ways I relax is listening to podcasts–many times it is a “True Crime” podcast, other times a podcast with a more journalistic slant. I recently found a podcast that combines both: “In the Dark”, by American Public Media. (Here‘s the link to the podcast site–check it out.) All the episodes are great, but it was the second-to-last one that grabbed my attention.

The series features a particular crime (the kidnapping and death of a child), and uses that incident as a vehicle to explore the efficacy of the Stearns County Sheriff Department. And here comes the first thing I learned from this podcast: there is no agency that oversees elected Sheriffs. There is no organization that you can appeal to if you feel that your Sheriff is inept or worse. The theory is that the accountability mechanism is the election process. Fair enough. And the good thing, in this day and age, is that the information (the data) upon which to base a vote is readily available. The podcast featured a site called Murder Accountability Project that tracks clearance rates for murder across the country. (A clearance rate is measurement of how many murder cases a police/Sheriff department result in a charge.) Go to the site and check out the clearance rate for your community. I won’t say it is fun, but it is interesting. If you live in an area with an elected Sheriff, this site gives you the information to help you decide who to vote for, and the data with which to persuade others.

But if you don’t feel comfortable manipulating data, or even using data (rather than emotions) to inform many of your decisions, you are not taking advantage of the data revolution, or to be more trendy, the rise of “big data”. There are a lot of uncomfortable things that are creating the reservoir of “big data”. We are being tracked through our online actions, our cell phone movements, our social media behavior. Conversely, as much as we are “donating” our data, we are not equally leveraging the resulting data for our own benefit and society’s betterment. Part of this disparity, I am convinced, is because we are not trained to think and use data as fluently as we do our instincts and emotions. As a society, we need to teach everyone to use data and reason quantitatively. This doesn’t require sending all the adult population back to school. Nor does it require waiting for the coding generation. There are tools out there that can help you build your data analysis skills. But you don’t even have to do that. Just start finding websites, run by reputable agencies, that track data you are interested in. Let the data suck you in. Let it lead you to analytical tools that you can use to understand your world more accurately. See the world through the data it generates.