Touching the Data

It was a county with the highest labor non-participation rate in America and an embarrassment to the state’s governor.  Labor non-participation measured the people who were unemployed and not looking for employment.  The governor asked one of his administrative assistants to give him ideas on how to increase the labor participation rate.  The result of the assistant’s work was a training program for remote workers since the county was very rural and unlikely to attract outside business.  The cost of the program was reasonable and the governor proudly announced it at a press conference.

One year later, the training program was a miserable failure.  No one signed up for it.  The governor asked another assistant to visit the county to find out what the problem was.  Here’s what he found out.  Virtually everyone who could work was working.  The county’s economy was largely cash only employment.  People worked at the local ski resort and hunting lodges for cash (no checks, no taxes withheld, etc.).  They made hay and planted crops in the summer for the corporate farms in the area.  Again, for cash only.  Virtually everyone in the county had their own home that they built for themselves.  They lived on at least one acre plots of land.  They had huge gardens and canned most of what they grew for winter eating.  They had well stocked deep freezers from the hunting season and from butchering their own animals.  What the assistant concluded was that the citizens of the county had a life that many would envy.

Touching the data refers to the need to gain a first-hand understanding of the data through direct observation.  Without touching the data, the real insights the data provides will not be identified.

When President Franklin Roosevelt launched his New Deal programs, he was concerned if he’d get real truth about how they were working. He told those responsible for the programs “Go and see what’s happening. See the end product of what we are doing. Talk to people; get the wind in your nose.” Of course what President Roosevelt asked his staff to do also works prior to the initiation of a program. There is no better source of insight then talking to people you are trying to help.

Touching the data takes longer than just relying on the raw numbers themselves.  The analysis will take longer.  Then how do you justify touching the data?  You might answer the justification by asking these questions.  Just imagine important is it that we get real insights for our analysis rather than mindless number crunching?  Just imagine how can we get insight on the intangible and largely human stories that data alone can’t reveal?  While we can measure the extra time and cost for touching the data, just imagine the time and costs of a wrongly formed analysis?

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“Data are just summaries of thousands of stories – tell a few of those stories to help make the data meaningful.” — Dan Heath (Co-author of Made to Stick)

(1)Ground Truth is what is actually happening in society rather than what is being said is happening.

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