Understanding Data for Better Analysis

DataWhat Exactly Am I Looking at?

Data analytics has exploded: We have more data at our fingertips than ever before. And we can do more with data than ever before. Demonstrating data leadership in 2016 requires that we better understand the data we have at our disposal, and that we are aware of institutional priorities that drive the questions we ask of our data. We must recognize that learning more about data—and opening up our data to collaborative engagement—can have tremendous impact on the quality of our analysis.

Translating massive amounts of information into understandable analysis is no small feat—especially in the Federal government, which deals with data from millions of sources—but we can start by asking ourselves a few simple questions to better comprehend the data we have on hand:

  • Am I pulling the right data? Meaningful data analysis hinges on examining the right data set, which in turn largely depends on understanding why you are pulling data in the first place. Think about the issues or questions that your team is trying to address, and check in with your manager about how your department intends to use your analysis. Being cognizant of these underlying priorities can help you determine whether the data you are pulling is mission relevant.
  • Is this data sufficiently valid? Because the government deals with terabytes of data on a daily basis, it is extremely difficult—if not impossible—to get a set that is complete, accurate, and free of error. Do not aim for a perfect data set; instead, determine whether your set is sufficiently Ask yourself whether it speaks to the questions at hand and will help you complete your work in a timely way.
  • What exactly am I looking at? Take some time to understand the variables in your data set and the types of data in play. This is important because you will have to communicate your own assumptions about the potential trends, gaps, and lapses in your data set. It is also valuable to know whether your data is up to date (or needs to be refreshed), has a set expiration date, or is linked to shared content, particularly if you get data requests from team members, other departments, or the general public.
  • Who can help me? There are many ways to better understand, communicate, and strengthen the work that you do: Get a colleague’s opinion about the implications of a particular trend in your charts; have a conversation with your supervisor about ways to better align your analysis with the team’s priorities; or enhance your analytical capacity.

As we move further into 2016, it’s safe to expect data leadership not just at the institutional level, but from individual employees who receive and manage large volumes of data every day. However, before we can get to managing data—to marshaling it for better decisions and improved service—we must first comprehend it. Yes, data analytics has exploded—and if we don’t understand the data that we have, we’re sure to be left in the dust.

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