Facing Down the Data Monster

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Frightened girl hiding behind chair

We hate to admit it, but we’re afraid of data.

Look, if you dare, at data’s menacing erratic behavior. Just when it offers us a glimmer of hope—Georgia moves up in the national ranking to 37th—the data turns on us—but the state ranks 43rd in economic well-being, with more than 600,000 children living in poverty.

Even the word itself causes discord. We can’t agree whether to use data as a unit of information—the data is sound. Or the more pompous, albeit correct plural form—the data are sound (though I have never seen anyone point out a single item of datum).

Or do we really fear that if we face the data (like in a classic sci-fi flick) we’ll discover that it’s nothing more than a reflection of our own choices–both in what we do or fail to do?

If that’s true, when it comes to the well-being of our children and families we have reason to be scared, because the data can be downright bone-chilling.

We can choose to flee from the data, or we can face this intimidating, often misunderstood creature and resolve to tame it.

We need data. Without it we become trapped in our own preconceived biases and opinions. Studying current, reliable data and tracking trends allow us to compare how we’re doing now to how we did a year ago. If we fail to preserve history, we can’t evaluate our progress and chip away at our flaws.

But we have to stop asking too much of our data. Data doesn’t provide the answers. Data helps us ask the right questions and define the problems. We can only improve indicators–and sustain our progress–when everyone at the collaborative table is addressing those problems, sharing core values, and targeting common goals.

John Carter, a clinical professor at the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University, has spent more than two decades working with KIDS COUNT indicators. He recently called on his good friend Doug Bachtel, a professor of Housing and Consumer Economics at UGA and editor of The Georgia County Guide, to try and figure out why data scares us and how we can find the courage to face down the data monster.

Listen in on a conversation between these two data gurus.