Snippets of my world of humanitarian data and the people processes, successes and challenges that lie ahead

IMG_0331time rushes by, and rarely stays still

Humanitarian crisis and disasters grow in size and frequency at a pace that is surprisingly dwarfed by the swirling sea of humanitarian data. The expectations that we all have for data and its use in effective decision-making, accountable actions and durable change are daunting but a necessary pressure to change the system we are in.

I rarely finish a blogpost from crisis to crisis or from ER shift to ER shift. I’m currently post overnight from a very very busy shift –  one that reminds me of why I live for and enjoy the uncertainty of high acuity situations. But this is the time for me to finally hit the publish button on the series of blog posts suspended in draft format that I have written over the past couple years.

I hope this will be an opportunity to reflect upon, pull, and share snippets of my streams of thought on humanitarian data, information management, people, politics and progress.

I hope that a slice of my world will spark conversations across communities. For there is much learning we all need to do— to make this world a better place

The Meaning Behind Data and Counting Those Beans

I’m always amazed how we can fool ourselves in finding meaning with data and frequently lose ourselves in the metrics of the data. We are inundated with data during crises and the voices of optimism that envision the good in the data. This helps us continue to strive forward, but we often still struggle with the devil in the details.

“missing data” is one great example. (and my previous thoughts on how this plays out with digital data collection are here) If we leave “blank cells” in an excel sheet and can’t specify the meaning of that missing space (or can’t reach back in a timely manner to those who entered the data), how might we be accountable to the aggregated meaning of the missing during analysis?

Say I have 5000 patients records from a health clinic for which there is are 500 missing cells that specify no gender (male or female).  When I ask my analyst or data visualization specialist to “show me meaning” how many of the 10 will be able to

  1. Identify the missing
  2. Ask what it may mean, or not mean without applying assumptions from afar.
  3. Come up with relevant a story if the missing is unexplainable
  4. Or be able to move forward with the uncertainty of what the data may not show.

Another example is in the process of “data cleaning”.  If we assume that “blank cells” are “NA” and recode as such, and run an “analysis” on these 5000 records we might count the NA as a data point.  So the lack of understanding of 10% of the records is now spuriously reports as all complete.

And when we share that data, in aggregated format, we will likely run into some challenges. If we have not provided a domain driven interpretation of what has been done to the “clean” the data, what assumptions were applies, and placed this in language and context that can be interpreted by recipients of the shared data, there will be challenges that lied ahead.

This IMHO is one small component of what lies under the hood of humanitarian data. While a simple example, I expect that many would say in reply that most or almost any data analyst, IM, or researcher (or other skilled individual)  can catch this and be able to do the above, I bring this example to my reflection blog because this has happened multiple times with those above, me included. Humbling but true.

If we seek the meaning and aim to match a purpose with the data we have a ways to go on this road we call data for good and progress. Onward ho. 


Wed thought of the day

The power of story to collaborate and cross understand context is frequently unrecognized. Unintentionally expecting people to learn your discipline, meet your lexicon and adopt ways of thinking before meeting in the middle can be lead to delayed understanding  & adoption. If we want to focus on the user, it might help to put ourselves in their shoes and begin the story from that point.

“War torn” Chicago – a brief view from an ER doc & humanitarian in Chicago 

This is my first time making a commentary re politics on my blog. I didn’t anticipate a venture down this pathway but I do think it’s important to speak up about our ideas during this election cycle. Whatever views we have- the conversation is important. Because the deep-seated problems that we have are pressing and its important to for us to make progress toward a better country of people moving forward in a global world.

In last night’s debate, the Republican candidate Donald Trump referenced violence in  Chicago with his statement/question “Is this a war-torn country?” We are not in a “war torn country” here in Chicago. As an ER doc who works in a level 1 Chicago trauma center (although neither the most busy nor the most acute one IMHO) and a humanitarian,  this is a gross example of the lack of understanding of a potential future leader re the differences and similarities between the challenges that we face here in Chicago and the conflict spaces around the world.

Our future leader should know and be able to contextualize – and specify- the similarities and differences between violence, vulnerability, the direct and indirect consequences of protracted conflict/ war vs protracted violence domestically and globally. And what this means for the human dignity of all those involved- individual, community and beyond.

Serving those affected by conflict and protracted urban violence is hard and unbelievably complex – and we will keep moving forward regardless of the rhetoric. We need help both locally and globally, and the right people to help us along the way. We should expect no less and advocate for more. Because those we serve- deserve it and have a right to safety, dignity and fruitful lives moving forward.