Why I love data (and why you should too)
Meeghan Zahorsky (Bio Below)
I am a self-professed, professional data geek. Admittedly, it is the kind of hobby/profession that doesn’t inspire many follow up questions. A conversation with a stranger will usually go something like this:
“What do you do?”
“I measure impact.”
I have come to realize that rather than a lack of interest, there is a lack of understanding on both what exactly it is I do and why I find it so fascinating. When the first thing that comes to mind is a spectacled nerd digging through excel sheets from a dimly lit cubicle, I can hardly blame anyone for being dissuaded. On the surface, it neither has the sex appeal of a creative occupation (painter, journalist, etc.) or the gravitas of a more recognizable profession (doctors, lawyers and so on). However, let’s pretend you get past the geek stereotype, and let’s pretend that you take a chance to ask me “Why?”
- Since I was a child, I’ve loved creating order from chaos. For me, data management is just that. Data analysis is a process of organizing and categorizing bushels of data points until they can be neatly summarized. From working with organizations across multiple continents, I have found that this is also one of the biggest pain points. While collecting data en masse has become the norm, what to do with the mess of collected data is often unclear. Around the world there are stacks of surveys crowding office surfaces, maxed-out Dropbox folders and long-forgotten Excel sheets from all the data yet to be organized, and therefore, rendered useless. The same way some people enjoy raking leaves, I take great pleasure in being the Marie Kondo for data sets. Being able to create elegance from complexities makes the world feel less chaotic. (It’s not as OCD as it sounds.)
- In data, there are patterns, and in patterns, there are stories. These stories can be interpreted in many ways - they can illuminate the past and predict the future. It is easy to segregate data analytics and storytelling into far reaches of the spectrum, but they are inextricably linked. Stories draw power and truth from data, just as the human interpretation of data through storytelling makes data meaningful. If you want to know where robots and AI are not going to take over, it is here. Undoubtedly, advanced technologies will help us compute more information faster, but crafting data sets into stories requires a human touch. What I particularly love about this aspect of data is that the stories can be used in forecasting. Each choice we make, each investment, each intervention has a ripple effect on the ecosystem around us. Data-driven stories, based on predictive models, can help us measure the ripples far into the future. With this knowledge, we can make better choices, investments and interventions.
- Data can be manipulated, distorted and fabricated, but in its pure form there is truth. We are increasingly bombarded by more information and a deluge of misinformation and fake news. We need to create better frameworks and tools for managing and analyzing the barrage of data in order to interpret it as honestly and effectively as possible. This goes back to my previous point on storytelling. The storyteller has a great deal of power in how we see information. We need to be the type of listeners that read between the lines to the underlying data and hold storytellers accountable. I often face this complication when measuring the impact of social purpose organizations. There is an impetus to present data in favorable ways to funders and stakeholders. This lack of honesty often leads to wasted funding and time. When data is presented truthfully, we can learn how to do things better.
- It can surprise you. It can prove you wrong. It can validate you. When data is presented truthfully, it provides evidence to challenge assumptions or to support hunches. The data that contradicts opinions is the most valuable. It provides an opportunity to change our direction based on new information and to not repeat past failures. Particularly in the realm of social impact, the brutal honesty that data can present is critical to ensuring that individuals and organizations avoid doing harm in their endeavor to do good. Far too frequently, though, we find ourselves crafting data to support our opinions rather than enabling it to challenge them. The later will require a shift in how we collect, analyze and present data. I love data, and sometimes love is complicated. It reveals things to you, about you, that you don’t expect, and yet it can also prove that you were right to follow your gut.
We are all data analysts. We all pick up pieces of information from our environment, our Instagram feeds, our conversations, the news we watch, and we are constantly collecting these and using that data to create a narrative about how we perceive the world. If we can seek out the tools that help us organize this data and convert it into meaningful stories, we will discover truths about ourselves and the world around us that just might surprise us. That’s why I love data and why you should too.
More on that soon.
Meeghan has an eclectic background in impact measurement, technology, consulting, and public health, melding all of these passions to support social entrepreneurship and grassroots projects globally. She currently is a Principal Consultant for Thoughts In Gear, a Malaysia-based firm focused on Social Impact & Sustainability. Meeghan has previously been the CEO of an Indian NGO focused on malnutrition prevention. She has over 10 years experience in monitoring, evaluation and impact measurement with organizations in Africa, North America, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. Meeghan received her MA in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University and a BA in International Relations from Brown University.