i have questions

I spent the beginning of the week at the Governor’s Data Analytics Summit. Talk about some serious geekdom. And generally overly serious people. Governor McAuliffe was an exception, his speech was jovial and positive as usual, celebrating things in the Commonwealth and his accomplishments. But it was all seriously geeky.

And it happened again. The conversation that I find amusing. I go to events like this or hackathons and datathons and talk about what we do. I talk about our data, our longitudinal data systems (yes, plural – the agency’s and the collaborative system), and our data products. When I mention the wage & debt reports or the cohort lifecycle modeling, I often get this: “Wow, you must have one hell of a data scientist!”

“Thanks. I am pretty good at what I do, I’ve been doing it a long time.”

They look at my name tag again for a title again, or just say, “Oh.” Then we talk languages and tools and they learn that I am just not with it. My tools are old school. “Data Scientists” have proliferated at these events. Some are young and possibly credentialed as such, others are old, like older than me, and I find they haven’t picked up any new credentials. Nope, they have just retitled, re-branded, what they are. As far as I can tell, they just change tools occasionally to use the new, “cool” languages, or just new modules for old school software.

So, no, I don’t think of myself as a “data scientist.”

I’m not sure what I am. My title at work is “policy analytics director.” This gets at some of what I do. It’s also new, an improvement over “policy research and data warehousing director” for both brevity and accuracy, but I doubt it will be included most one-on-one introductions, unless I use it.

Recently I ran into a local college president. He introduced me to his son as “a numbers guy.” This is marginally better than “data guy”, a term I despise, (and yes, I know thatvirginiadataguy.net points to this site as sometimes you have to give in to the nightmare). “Data guy” is just so very one-dimensional. My life is not data. My identity is not data. But to a lot of people, that is probably all they see. Certainly, Virginia’s college presidents almost only see me talking about data – or rather what they think is data. I see it as something at a higher level than that, but I guess the difference between data and information and knowledge depends on where you stand. Or whether or not your thinking incorporates an understanding of the levels of abstraction that exist between a number and the people it represents. Where does data stop and information begin?

Data, for me, is the lowest level of observation, categorization, and measurement of phenomena. To address me as a data guy suggests that I am not worthy of the higher thought-levels in which you engage.

“Guru” is another nickname that just drives me crazy. It implies that there is some level of mysticism to what I do, at least in the way I suspect they mean it. There is no mysticism in this work, just hard work, a willingness to fail regularly, and an ability to learn from all that failure. Basically the same as in any profession. I’m not really a “data analyst” but it is a part of what I do. I can spend hours on occasion listening to the data and occasionally saying, “So what do you think about that?” Yeah, kind of the Carl Rogers of data science. (Would that work on a business card?) Or data psycho-analyst? Or psycho-data analyst others might suggest?

So what am I?

I am more than my job, that’s for sure.  If I am only a data guy, let me point out that I am generally the first person to make an argument for the liberal arts and humanities and their necessity for inclusion. I think about data and information in terms of policy objectives and people, it is more than just numbers. I also think about data in terms of the level of abstraction it represents, the distance from the measurement to the people, policies, transactions, or things measured.

I also see data everywhere. Everything is data. Every observation can be reduced to something identifiable as data or a collection of data. It’s frustrating, and sometimes damaging, because I notice things like timestamps on messages and will try to reconcile those with comments within a conversation, ie. reconciling data with storytelling. This can be unsettling to others but it is not intentional, it is just a byproduct of seeing and incorporating data. Because everything is data and it is all collectable. Especially stories. Stories are both data and a form of data collection and data sharing. They are also more than that as they are also informational and can convey knowledge and wisdom. That, I think is really cool.

Reviewing this last bit, I can almost believe that I am a data guy. But storyteller works too. I think storyteller is better, and more accurate. It won’t work on a business card for a state agency, but I could introduce myself that way. It makes sense to me, but it does it make sense to others?

Some years ago, in a context I don’t remember, I was part of an exercise about “Who are you?” The crux of this event was that most will identify themselves in terms of their job when any individual is generally so much more than that. The problem is that for some group of people that each of us knows, that is really all we are. That is my complaint. How do I, how do we, change that so we are seen as more than our jobs?

There was another aspect to the conversation above. The college president chuckled and said, “Tod always says what’s on his mind.”

I groaned, “Okay, what did I say this time?”

“Nothing, nothing it all. It’s just that you’ll have us all in a room, we’ll all be thinking the same thing, but you are the only one who will say it.”

Fair enough. I have little to lose by being straightforward, clear, honest, or just stating what sounds to be opinion but is more often my interpretation of what I see in the data. I also disagree that all are thinking the same thing as I know at least some are still struggling to catch up.

So, who am I? Is it what I do for work? Is that really a problem when it seems from my perspective that I do for work flows naturally from how I see the world and interact with it? Why do I object to certain phrases so viscerally when I can see their rightness, especially in the full definitions or synonymous meanings of words like guru?

I’m probably antagonistic by nature (full stop, maybe?) to the idea of being defined or described by two simple words. Might was well just call me a number. 219 works. I answered to that in both basic training and Air Assault school. Maybe this is my ongoing reaction to current sensibilities of reducing everything to a handful of numbers, a handful of words (bullets on a slide), key performance indicators. We’re carrying this too far, losing any sense of nuance or complexity, losing any sense that the data represent real people and their movement through life.

It reminds me of the racist, dehumanizing language used in the military to describe the opposing forces. Sure, it is shorthand, but my dehumanizing, by making them other, it reduced the psychological impact of killing and maiming. It makes it easier. The more we reduce measurement and description, the easier it becomes to forget the people that are the basis and the whole point of measurement. That’s my problem.