A philosophy of counting and analytics

“It’sa dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

― J.R.R. TolkienThe Lord of the Rings
It is likewise a dangerous, or perilous might be a better word, business to begin to count things. Once you start counting, you never know where it will take you. What you do know, or at least what you should know, is that where it takes you is highly influenced by your assumptions in place when you began to count.

Counting is fundamentally an act of control. We seek to understand and thereby control our environment or our relationship to our environment. We seek to control things by counting in order to manage their exchange or monetizing the things being counted. We control people through counting in a number of ways, not the least of which is to define groups in and out of existence.

The notion of “information justice” captures this latter idea. Jeffrey Alan Johnson defines it thusly in an upcoming text:

“Information justice refers to the fundamental ethical judgment of social arrangements for the distribution of information and it’s effects on self-determination and human development. It is a broader subset of the notion of political justice, applied to questions of information and information technology.”
And so my challenge of how I think about and how i perform counting and analytics is this.

How do we count without doing harm, without taking away voice and recognition from minority groups, and how do we use analysis to improve outcomes without stealing it denying agency of those we claim to serve?

So, I have a few principles that I follow.

1) Counting must give safe voice to the voiceless. We can’t allow counting to become a tool of targeting subpopulations. We must think about the act and processes of counting to protect confidentiality as appropriate.

2) Counting and reporting should illuminate and guide decision-making in non-harmful ways. By this I mean that data and information displays should follow good practices of clarity and appropriateness of context and completeness. There should be clear statements of the limits of any measure. Average wages of graduates by itself has so much potential used by itself to be completely unrepresentative of 80% of people reported under such a measure. Distributions matter.

3) Analytic models that result in risk factors that include race/ethnicity or gender are indicators that you are measuring against the students or clients you wish you had, not those you have. We should delve more deeply into understanding the relationship between what we do and who we think we are serving.

4) Slick displays and data visualizations are too often like air brush paintings where the artist can’t draw. Slickness is often used to hide the lack of substance. Simplicity and basic displays are better for highlighting difference or the lack of distance.

5) There is often no other more powerful act than the act of definition. In the absence of definition, creating and publishing one is powerful, even without fanfare. A definition may seemingly lay dormant on a web page for years and then appear in law. It’s powerful and a tremendous responsibility.

I guess to sum up I would say this.

I count to give voice and support to those we serve, striving to do no harm, and to never restrict not deny agency to those being counted. The analytics I perform are to improve systems’ and institutions’ understanding of self and to support individuals in finding the excellence in the lives they desire, within the domain of my work.

thoughts from a conference

I’ve been doing higher ed data and data policy for a long time now, almost three decades. I now have staff that are younger than the length of time I’ve been doing this stuff. It’s enough time to see that we continue to try and solve the same problems, just with different language and different metrics.

I think also not many of my fellow practitioners are thinking deeply about why we count. It’s easier to talk about what to count, how to count, but not why. There is a lack of fluency with the history of higher education and how it connects with American history. Also, it the nature of counting itself seems to be of non-interest. I draw blank stares when I talk about counting to one or counting as an act of control (although sometimes a light goes on here).

So now I am bringing the concept of “information justice” to the discussions. That seems to stir interest. It’s still the same conversation, just at a different level that seems more actionable since it provides a script, or at least the appearance of a script. But justice of any type is not something that should have to originate out of the idea of “doing justice.” Instead, it should originate from your thoughts about why and how you are doing something to ensure fairness and equity. Too often justice comes into play after the fact in order to clean up the messes that occur from sloppy thinking and acting.

Another thing that is clear to me is that I need to write up the philosophy that drives what I do (and what I don’t do). See, my thinking about analytics and data use has evolved tremendously over the years. I used to be a true believer about using neural networks and other precursors of predictive analytics, but now I have serious doubts. More and more I have become concerned about information justice, long before I knew there was such a term. I’ve generally thought about things in much simpler terms like “counting to one.”

Stay tuned. I will be writing a philosophy of counting while on vacation.


Talking with strangers

I. Am. Not. Good. With. Small. Talk.

I’ve said this before, I’m sure. I do the make the effort though. I will  talk with anyone, especially if there is a possibility of learning something useful.

There is also something about how I present to the world that attracts a more than generous share of persons with alternative experiences of the world I live in.

Tonight, west of Chicago in a service plaza, I encountered such people. They (an older, elderly couple) had pulled up nearby while Melinda and I were eating sandwiches constructed out of the back the car. They seemed very interested in us. Actually, it was our trailer. The old guy said he used to sell RVs and has never seen a camper like ours. Seemed to think it was something the Germans would build. (For the record, our SylvanSport Go is built in North Carolina.)  So, anyhow he wanted to know about the trailer.
After I gave him the rundown, he asked if I was salesman. Nope, just a traveler. Asked where we were going. I gave him few places. He had opinions. Not as strong as his opinions about Illinois and Chicago and why they were moving too much saner Florida on the Redneck Riviera but opinions. (Yes, I laughed openly at this.) Apparently every place he has lived has treated him badly.

In five or six minutes I learned more of his life history than he was ever going to learn of mine. I also learned I probably wasn’t going to learn anything really useful in this conversation. This caused me to immediately get bored with it all land just listen politely hoping that some of clown twenty years from now listens politely while I ramble on about the injustices of my life.

I’m sure I could do this better. But it seems like I would have to ask more questions. That would seem to indicate interest where I have none.

I guess I have to learn to be more interested in strangers.

Giving up stress as habit

I’m working with a healthy lifestyle coach through work to reduce my stress. Today I realized that stress, for me at least, is a habit in the same way  anger is (was) a lifestyle.

Stress initiates the same “fight or flight” response that anger does. Both release cortisol and adrenaline/epinephrine into the body. Both disrupt. They disrupt sleep, well-being, physiology, and perhaps worse of all, they disrupt communication.

Adrenaline is a rush. You can get the same rush from stress and anger as you do from downhill skiing. There are just different emotions and responses attached. The adrenaline rush can be addictive.

In other words, you can get hooked on being stressed. You may not enjoy it the way you might other addictions, but you are hooked the same way. If this happens, you start creating situations where stress develops naturally. Say, by taking on more responsibilities, creating a greater vision than you can possibly realize given real-world limitations, procrastinating, or simply by creating conflict – even if it is only through responding conflictually. You create stress to get the adrenaline, and it cycles and spirals in such a way you keep creating more stress.

This has negative effects on the body.

This also has negative effects on relationships.

For the past few months I have been working at breathing and meditation. Slowly and imperfectly. I have at least learned to count breaths as a way to manage stress in the moment. This has helped. But. I wrote a post a few weeks that makes the point that counting is an act of control. We only count things we wish to control in some manner. While there is a certain amount of value in controlling your breathing, if your goal in focusing on your breathing is “to be in the moment,” then counting seems to be the wrong way to go about it. Counting is about controlling more than it is about being. Counting is about moving on because it is always a step further away from zero on the number line or whatever axis you are using.

Counting takes you away.

So, instead of counting breaths, I count each breath. I count to one and stop. And I do it again. And again. After all, the value in focusing on your breathing in meditation is breathing is always the thing you do now. Past breaths don’t matter. Future breaths don’t matter. All that matters is this breath now. By counting each breath and starting over, I am embracing each breath as its own moment. I am not moving farther down the axis., I am staying rooted in the Now.

This is hard work though. It would be much easier to simply get rid of everything that causes stress. But I am pretty sure that would leave me very lonely and very bored. For that reason, I will stick with the things that cause stress, but continue to learn to be more aware of each moment, and less focused on what makes me feel stressed. All of this is part of developing much greater mindfulness than I am capable of currently.


  • Continue to develop and practice attitudes that lead toward greater mindfulness.
  • Learn to pause or stop before responding. (I have a bad habit of responding immediately. Sometimes I think this is about creating more stress than anything else.)
  • Continue to give up ideas and practices of control. (Let more things be done by others. Share the wealth of opportunities that exist with all the stuff that needs doing.)
  • Identify things/behaviors that cause stress and develop workarounds.

This last thing is kind of big. I’m not a big planner. I’ve traveled across country multiple times with the only known stops to be the beginning and the end. I like the looseness of no plans and potentialities of discovery. I admit though, I dislike driving farther and farther into the night looking for a motel. So as we prepare to leave on a 4,500 mile roadtrip, I have made reservations for every night. We know what motels and hotels the first two weeks, what campsites the second two weeks. Further, I have put this is all into an itinerary and shared it with people. Most importantly, I have shared it with my wife, in hard copy. She now knows the plan. I am not always very good about sharing my plans, especially those that are all in my head, because I like the flexibility of changing my mind and not having to admit to changing my mind. Or worse, being wrong. I have bad habits of responding in irritation to questions about the plan in my head. In part, because I was typically irritated that I hadn’t told anybody so now I have to explain it – while in midst of executing it. Blecch.

It’s liberating. And it might even work. We are about to find out.




You can waste your summer

A few weeks ago I was having coffee with a friend following the debut weekend of “Wonder Woman.” The conversation naturally lead into further consideration of heroes, and then television and the anti-heroes of HBO dramas like “The Sopranos.”

When I brought up the series “Oz” about life within the fictional maximum security Oswald State Penitentiary,  we were stuck for a moment. You see, we could talk about the evolutionary arc of Tony Soprano and his paisanos and moments of redemption, but also with no expectation that many of the characters would redeem themselves. Least ways, not beyond their ethical structures and into ours. There was a clarity to their actions that usually took place within their basic ethical frame – “Once you’re into this family, there’s no getting out.”

In Oz, week after week, we waited for a hero. We looked to see if rare moments of redemption turned into something else. They did not.

Week after week, we waited for a hero that never arose.

Each episode simply contributed to the downward spiral of meanness, evil, and despair, that was the “normal” character development arc in Oz. The violence, the desire for control over others as the closest thing to freedom possible, the abuses of all types, and the treatment of humans as deranged animals, leave most viewers desperately wishing for a hero. We wanted someone to rise up and save at least one person, if only themselves. It never really happened though.

As the Boss said in Thunder Road:

“You can hide ‘neath your covers and study your pain
Make crosses from your lovers,throw roses in the rain,
Waste your summer praying in vain
For a savior to rise from these streets.”

You can do these things, but you are missing the fact that there are heroes all around us. I see them every day. People who fight for what they believe (@saragoldrickrab). People who try to elevate the conversation (@tressiemcphd). People who share what is seemingly unshareable (@rgayHunger is amazingly beautiful and painful). People who sparkle and strive (@googleguacamole).

These are some of my heroes. They are brave, amazing, super-intelligent, and honorable people. You know, what we all want to be.


It’s all an estimate

Sometime in 1995 I picked up a copy of “Fear of Physics: A Guide for the Perplexed.” I don’t quite remember whose recommendation this was or what triggered it, but it was delightful read. Mostly the book is about estimating. That’s right, estimating. About how physicists use estimating to understand the universe.

This morning I was painting and this occurred to me:

I’d never thought about it like this before. Painting, especially with my style, is just a process of estimation. I’m not trying to create photo realism. I’m making portraits that contain colors and brushstrokes That often have little to do with reality. Actually, they have mostly little to do with reality. What happens is the placement of color and certain brush strokes pull the rest together to estimate an image of a person. It’s pretty cool when it happens well.

The funny thing is that this is what I do at work, only with data. I work with large quantities of data that are themselves estimates. From those I create more estimates, estimates that are highly precise, but estimates nonetheless. Today was the first time I thought of these things as being so similar. In the past I thought about the relationship in terms of design, visualization, and layout, not estimation. So I think this is pretty cool as well.

It also takes the stress off. Estimating is easier than duplicating. Really though, estimating is just another way to say “suggesting,” which is what artists are generally taught to do. Estimating is more comfortable to me for some reason, probably  because of the parallel to the rest of my life.



There is simply not a canvas big enough to contain Tressie McMillan Cottom. She exceeds. Intellect. Humor. Grace. Passion. Because of this, I chose a smaller canvas and just let her dominate and exceed it.


Tressie. 18″ x 24″, Oil on canvas. 2017.