Data Points and the Human Experience

My idea of data has changed since I was in graduate school and since I have come into the corporate world. Prior to working in corporate, data was this entity that was out there and that I needed in order to 'do' research. Even in Uganda, I was not sure what to actually do with the information I collected. And I had so much of it!

Then I started working as a data manager for the Ebola100 Project. Data began to take on a new meaning for me. I was listening to audio recordings and reading transcripts. I realized that this "data" is documentation of peoples' lives. 

This data represents events that actually occurred as told by the individuals who experienced them.

Many times, graduate students interpret 'data' as mere points on a plot or another row in an evidence table. They may not truly understand the context or the meaning behind the data points. And given how few in-person data collection experiences the academy affords young graduate students, this naiveté comes honestly.

When I started working with government institutions, data took on an even greater meaning. An urgency exists regarding knowing and understanding what the data mean. For instance, for one of my projects, our whole purpose is to reduce the number of suicides among active duty military. We have to look at data and we have to look at all sorts of epidemiological statistics to be able to develop the appropriate programs in order to prevent suicide among service members. This data is constantly being updated. As a result, I can actually observe, in real time, how many more suicides occurred within a week of looking at the data.

This experience has really hit home for me. Working with data is no longer about figuring out how to write code in whatever software system. It is no longer about 'can I make a regression analysis out of this,' or 'what is going to get me more points with publishers or peer review or whoever is looking at my research.' It really has become about, 'these are people who are choosing to take their lives and they are doing it on a daily basis - each one of these 'data points' is a person that no longer exists. This is a father or a mother or or a sister or a brother or son or a daughter or a friend or colleague. And they are no longer here and they are not coming back.'

That data point represents someone who will never be able to tell their story on their own ever again.

While academic institutions do well to prepare students for statistical and qualitative analysis once the data is collected, a return to what we mean by 'data' and how to make meaning of the data we collect is warranted. Indeed, focusing on the reflexive nature of data collection and analysis can only serve to improve graduate students' experiences as scholars and practitioners.