Why do I feel like I’m still waiting for data to come to our rescue?

You’ve probably seen the same headlines that I have over the years: The amount of data is growing at a mind-boggling rate. In fact, there’s so much data that we gave this phenomenon a name: “Big Data.”

Yet I keep wondering: Why if there’s so much more data are we not getting significantly better at leveraging numbers to solve pressing social problems?

We now have more granular data about a whole range of health behaviors, for example. In my children’s-related work roughly 15 years ago, we felt fortunate to find data broken down by county, which, for populous counties, is too large a summary score to be useful for decision-making. But now we can act, at least theoretically, with far more precision, given that we have neighborhood-level estimates for a whole host of health measures, including health behaviors and life expectancy.

From my vantage point, however, I see little evidence that use of such local data are yielding momentous results. I don’t mean to suggest that data alone can solve long-standing problems in the social sector, but we certainly live in a world in which we presume more data will come to our rescue. I’m just not sure I’m seeing data coming over the horizon on its white horse, riding to our rescue in the social sector.

Yes, Data Are Now Easier to Find, But..

How could that be, you may wonder? After all, data are so much easier to find now compared to, say, ten years ago with government agencies publishing significantly more data, thanks to the open data movement. And beyond government data, which tend to be a few years old, there are all kinds of new sources with “fresher” data, too — e.g. the numbers we shed from the various sensors that inhabit our lives, including exercise trackers and the data fumes from our cell phone use.

I’m not sure I’m seeing data coming over the horizon on its white horse, riding to our rescue in the social sector.

Now that we have these data, we’re eager to make sense of them, so we put deep faith in the power of analytics to put some order to all of these numbers. We even have a new profession, data scientists, to signify expertise at conducting such analyses. There’s surely no greater marker of the ascendancy of data than elevating it to that level of all-powerful scientists in whom we put so much faith to improve our understanding of the world.

The solution to this problem of failing to transform facts into impact isn’t just more data. We’re buried in data, thanks to the flood of numbers that overwhelm us each day. Nor should the solution be focused solely on developing more powerful tools for conducting analyses. The tools we have now seem strong enough to address pressing social phenomenon.

So how can we solve this problem?

Over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion that data needs to take a pause – in essence, get off its treadmill. Instead we need to focus on the words and messaging that surround the data we’re disseminating and think through, too, how the end-user is digesting the numbers that we often arbitrarily speak nowadays. There’s a way forward here, but that way forward needs more words and stories, less data.

Avoid Dull Facts, FDR Advised

One analogy that comes to mind is iron ore, another primary source material with vast potential. Iron ore, however, isn’t useful until it’s converted into steel. By that same token, data don’t have meaning until translated into information. We often think the conversion stops there, from data to information. But steel rods are not helpful in our lives; that steel needs to be forged into a tool — e.g. a hammer or building materials — that humans can tap. By that same token, information forged from data need to be harnessed, translated into engaging products relevant in our lives in order to achieve results.

Raw data is like iron ore. It needs to be forged into a tool.

Consider the wise counsel of Franklin Roosevelt: Avoid dull facts, he advised his speechwriters during the depression, according to Doris Kearns Goodwin in her book, Leadership in Turbulent Times. Create memorable images, Roosevelt said, and translate every issue into people’s lives. That was nearly 100 years ago, but to this day, we still believe that data can stand on its own two feet.

Let’s try a quick experiment:

Say I were to tell you that in your community 15% of people suffer from asthma, a verifiable fact that others could look up. You might take notice, just maybe. However, a number like 15% can seem like an abstraction.

But let’s say instead I led with a story:

“Everyday when Jenny gets on the bus for school, her mom worries whether she remembered to take her asthma inhaler with her and will react quickly enough to use that inhaler if she gets an attack, which could be deadly. Jenny is like so many others in our community, more than 15% of whom suffer from asthma.”

Chances are that the second, story-based approach will grab your attention, encouraging you to listen more intently, think about solutions, and share this information with others.

Our Brain Are Hard-Wired for Stories

Put simply, our brains are hard-wired for stories. By contrast, this notion of describing ourselves with numbers is a relatively new phenomenon. After all, it’s only in recent human history that we’ve lived in communities populous enough to be measured through statistics. From an evolutionary perspective, we may only have capacity to understand the size of numbers we come across everyday — and those numbers are not in the thousands or millions, the ones that people typically communicate.

So while scientists speak in the language of numbers, the vast majority of the people that we need to reach in the social sector, from elected officials to local business leaders to concerned community members that vote, aren’t as likely to be persuaded by data as stories. I’m not talking here about reaching fellow travelers who are well-versed in a topic. Sure, they understand the data; they’re the choir, which is easy to preach to. But if you want to reach non-experts, data will need to be adorned. Your numbers will need to be woven strategically into a compelling narrative. You need the heart and the head to make a persuasive case, not one or the other.

Beyond messaging, there’s the issue, too, of how to present facts in useful ways. These days, I’m noticing a digital arms race in the data visualization sector, with national news outlets building data tools with increasingly beautiful, art-like displays and impressive ways for readers to interact with findings. That makes sense, given that national news outlets like the New York Times or the Washington Post are in the business of raising broad awareness and educating a national populace.

This New York Times data animation on income mobility got a lot of attention — and for good reason. But when you’re doing the local work to get traction with data, the tools you want to use often are simpler: a compelling story and a cogent, simple visual.

But when you’re in the trenches, doing the local-level cavalry work with data, you’re neither looking for such interactive displays, nor could you realistically have the budget to hire designers and data visualization programmers to build out visualizations that make audiences’ jaws drop.

Seemingly every week I’m talking to people doing this community-level, heavy lifting with data dissemination. When I ask them how they want to display findings to yield results, they talk about face-to-face communication — presentations to the Board of Supervisors or a meeting with a local business leader to whom they want to leave a printed fact sheet. This notion of highly interactive, digital displays doesn’t often come up.

Instead of a highly interactive visualization like the one above, people on the front lines of data dissemination often need tools that support face-to-face communication, such as these PDF fact sheets offered by kidsdata.org.

It won’t be as hard as we might think to shift our focus from finding and analyzing the data to thinking, too, about compelling, story-based messaging and thoughtful displays rooted in real-world use cases. There are approaches we can employ (yes, effective data storytelling can be taught), and lessons from which we can learn to build up our capacity. And, yes, we will need to find ways to address the idealogical and cultural biases which can act as filters in the minds of recipients, increasingly preventing us from reading from a common, data-infused script. Likewise, we need to get better at discussing solutions and impact, not just the social problems that data expose.

I remain confident, however, that a well-told story enriched with verifiable facts will get at least a majority of listeners to pay attention in an objective way. And the first step down this path is simply recognizing that data, on its own, won’t ride to our rescue, even if we have more data and better tools of analysis. Data need people to humanize the numbers and guide fellow humans to results for our communities.

This is just one observer’s opinion. I’m interested to hear your thoughts on whether we’re better than I think we are at leveraging data in the social sector. And if not, what else could help address this problem? Please add a comment below…

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