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, or with conference chair Audrey Geoffroy: 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.

18 October 2012

It’s your turn to DRIVE!

It’s been a full year since I attended the first DRIVE Conference in Seattle, and I’m pleased to let you know (if you don’t already) that a second one is on the way. DRIVE 2013 takes place February 20-21 at the Bell Harbor International Conference Center in Seattle, Washington, and is hosted by the University of Washington. Registration is now open!

I’ll be making the trip to DRIVE 2013, and I think you should, too. I’m there to speak, but I expect to get a whole lot more out of it than I give.

DRIVE stands for those most awesome and beautiful words “Data, Reporting, Information and Visualization Exchange.” It’s a gathering-place for the growing community of non-profit IT/data people seeking to bring new ideas and efficient processes and systems to their organizations. Whether you’re just joining the non-profit ranks or you’ve been in the sector a while, this is the place to explore the latest ideas in analytics, modeling, data, reporting, information and visualization with people who are of like mind but come from all sorts of different backgrounds.

It’s this diversity that really injects value into the “exchange” part of DRIVE: You’ll meet some fascinating people who will help you see data-driven performance through a whole new lens.

Especially this year … wow. There are fundraisers and report-writers and data miners – all great. But a developmental molecular biologist? And a major-league baseball scout? Yes!

On top of that, there’s an opportunity to sign up for some on-the-spot mentoring (either as a mentor or mentee) which will allow you to have a focused conversation on a topic of interest that goes beyond the merely social aspect of a conference. Check that out on the conference website.

A few speaker highlights:

DR. JOHN J. MEDINA, a developmental molecular biologist, has a lifelong fascination with how the mind reacts to and organizes information. He is the author of the New York Times bestseller “Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School” — a provocative book that takes on the way our schools and work environments are designed.

ASHUTOSH NANDESHWAR, Associate Director of Analytics at the University of Michigan, will talk about how we can tackle the three biggest problems in fundraising using data science.

KARL R. HABERL, of Principal BI will be presenting on the merits of powerful visualization. His presentation will introduce you to three innovative ‘compound charting techniques’ that provide new levels of insights to analysts and their audiences.

ANDREW PERCIVAL, an advanced scout with Major League Baseball’s Seattle Mariners. For his presentation, Andrew will be speaking about the use of data in the game of baseball. Come hear how an MLB scout turns massive data sets into information that is used by coaches and front-office personnel.

Oh yeah – and me, and a whole lot more. For more information on the other speakers and topics lined up so far, visit the DRIVE 2013 website.

16 November 2011

DRIVE Conference presentations now online

On October 26-27, a sellout crowd gathered in downtown Seattle for the inaugural Data, Reporting, Information and Visualization Exchange (DRIVE). Conference hosts at the University of Washington have created a new website for DRIVE at where you can freely view all the sessions from DRIVE 2011 (including one by yours truly). The community that they’ve started to build will continue to develop via a discussion forum on the site. Everyone is welcome to come on board and find out details on next year’s conference as they become available.

The Silver is the New Black Theme Blog at


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