A Hard Task Master

Data is a hard task master. It demands accuracy and is very hard to communicate effectively.

My university is small  –  nice – but it comes with it’s own challenges, one of which is how we make decisions. Because we’re small, anecdotal information can sometimes feel like statistics and hard data, especially if a powerful person is sharing the story. When that’s the case, it’s pretty easy to get yanked around by a small situation. We can get all bent out of shape trying to fix a small problem that feels big.

My guess is that you’ve all seen something similar.

So rather than engage in the academic snobbery that says my hard data is better than your little story, we’ve attempted to capture the best of both worlds as we present stats and data to the university community. How do we do that?

First, we analyzed what makes anecdotal information so engaging. It’s easy to understand: there’s not a lot of interpretation needed; it’s short, sweet, powerful, and grabs your attention. All of these parts are made even more engaging when the anecdote is shared by someone powerful.

Then we tried to capture those same characteristics while preparing fully researched data to share.

For example when I was being interviewed to become the Registrar at TWU, the President said in an exasperated tone of voice, “I just want someone who can tell me how many students we have at TWU!” I smiled – this was going to be easy!

Well, you know that old proverb as well as I: “Pride goes before a fall.”

That image above? That’s just a small snapshot of a piece of the data.  Somewhere in there is a formula that says how many students we have, but it ain’t obvious!

So we decided to take the anecdotal approach and created a few (only a few) graphs and charts. There’s not a lot of interpretation needed; it’s short, sweet, powerful, and grabs your attention.

The data behind this chart and others like it is sometimes mind-boggling, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at the chart. It’s easy on the eyes, doesn’t need a lot of interpretation, and shows you in a an instant that things are looking up. I can tell the President, “This is how many students we have, and how many compared to previous years.”

I think we have the necessary powerful person to share our anecdote, too. Presidents always like sharing good news 🙂

P.S. Thanks to Emily Greenhalgh (@orange_hippo on Twitter) for the charts and graphs used above. She’s great at this stuff!

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