CoolData blog

30 November 2012

Analytics conferences: Two problems, two antidotes

A significant issue for gaining data-related skills is finding the right method of sharing knowledge. No doubt conferences are part of the answer. They attract a lot of people with an interest in analytics, whose full-time job is currently non-analytical. That’s great. But I’m afraid that a lot of these people assume that attending a conference is about passively absorbing knowledge doled out by expert speakers. If that’s what you think, then you’re wasting your money, or somebody’s money.

There are two problems here. One is the passive-absorption thing. The other is a certain attitude towards the “expert”. Today I want to describe both problems, and prescribe a couple of conferences related to data and analytics which offer antidotes.

Problem One: “Just Tell Me What To Do”

You know the answer already: Knowledge can’t be passively absorbed. It is created, built up inside you, through engagement with an other (a teacher, a mentor, a book, whatever). We don’t get good ideas from other people like we catch a cold. We actively recognize an idea as good and re-create it for ourselves. This is work, and work creates friction — this is why good ideas don’t spread as quickly as mere viral entertainment, which passes through our hands quickly and leaves us unchanged. Sure, this can be exciting or pleasant work, but it requires active involvement. That’s pretty much true for anything you’d call education.

Antidote One: DRIVE

Ever wish you could attend a live TED event? Well, the DRIVE conference (Feb. 20-21 in Seattle — click for details) captures a bit of that flavour: Ideas are front and centre, not professions. Let me explain … Many or most conferences are of the “birds of a feather” variety — fundraisers talking to fundraisers, analysts talking to analysts, researchers talking to researchers, IT talking to IT. The DRIVE conference (which I have written about recently) is a diverse mix of people from all of those fields, but adds in speakers from whole other professional universes, such a developmental molecular biologist and a major-league baseball scout.

Cool, right? But if you’re going to attend, then do the work: Listen and take notes, re-read your notes later, talk to people outside your own area of expertise, write and reflect during the plane ride home, spin off tangential ideas. Dream. Better: dream with a pencil and paper at the ready.

Problem Two: “You’re the Expert, So Teach Me Already”

People may assume the person at the podium is an expert. The presenter has got something that the audience doesn’t, and that if it isn’t magically communicated in those 90 minutes then the session hasn’t lived up to its billing. Naturally, those people are going to leave dissatisfied, because that’s not how communicating about analytics works. If you’re setting up an artificial “me/expert” divide every time you sit down, you’re impeding your ability to be engaged as a conference participant.

Antidote Two: APRA Analytics Symposium

Every year, the Association of Professional Researchers for Advancement runs its Data Analytics Symposium in concert with its international conference. (This year it’s Aug 7-8 in Baltimore.) The Symposium is a great learning opportunity for all sorts of reasons, and yes, you’ll get to hear and meet experts in the field. One thing I really like about the Symposium is the  case-study “blitz” that offers the opportunity for colleagues to describe projects they are working on at their institutions. Presenters have just 20 or so minutes to present a project of their choice and take a few questions. Some experienced presenters have done these, but it’s also a super opportunity for people who have some analytics experience but are novice presenters. It’s a way to break through that artificial barrier without having to be up there for 90 minutes. If you have an idea, or would just like more information on the case studies, get in touch with me at kevin.macdonell@gmail.com, or with conference chair Audrey Geoffroy: ageoffroy@uff.ufl.edu. Slots are limited, so you must act quickly.

I present at conferences, but I assure you, I have never referred to myself as an “expert”. When I write a blog post, it’s just me sweating through a problem nearly in real time. If sometimes I sound like I knew my way through the terrain all along, you should know that my knowledge of the lay of the land came long after the first draft. I like to think the outlook of a beginner or an avid amateur might be an advantage when it comes to taking readers through an idea or analysis. It’s a voyage of discovery, not a to-do list. Experts have written for this blog, but they’re good because although they know their way around, every new topic or study or analysis is like starting out anew, even for them. The mind goes blank for a bit while one ponders the best way to explore the data — some of the most interesting explorations begin in confusion and uncertainty. When Peter Wylie calls me about an idea he has for a blog post, he doesn’t say, “Yeah, let’s pull out Regression Trick #47. You know the one. I’ll find some data to fit.” No — it’s always something fresh, and his deep curiosity is always evident.

So whichever way you’re facing when you’re in that conference room, remember that we are all on this road together. We’re at different places on the road, but we’re all traveling in the same direction.

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