CoolData blog

20 December 2010

What I’m reading, and how

Filed under: Training / Professional Development — Tags: , , — kevinmacdonell @ 6:30 am

Along with the blogs and online publications I read, I usually have two books on the go at once, sometimes three or more. That’s not as impressive as it sounds. I’m a slow reader (or as I tell people, a “careful” reader) with a short attention span. I like to read, just not more than a few pages at a stretch from any one book. At the moment I’m excited about several books I have piled around me, and I hope to make some headway on them over the holidays when I am not feeling too full, inebriated or stupid. Have a look:

Now You See It: Simple Visualization Techniques for Quantitative Analysis, by Stephen Few (2009, Analytics Press) is a big, beautiful chunk of a book. Its dimensions are those of a university textbook or reference, but it should be read from start to finish, as I am now doing. Understanding data, thinking about data, and communicating its messages require us to make pictures of the data. This book is a journey through successive layers of complexity in the art and science of visualization. It’s not a stats book, but more like what Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style” is for writers — a foundation text for people who need to communicate data-based ideas visually, with the aid of (and sometimes in spite of) the software we have available.

Stats: Data and Models, by Richard De Veaux, Paul Velleman, and David Bock (Second Edition, 2008, Pearson Education, Inc.). Unlike Stephen Few’s book, which looks like a textbook but isn’t, this hefty book IS a textbook. It’s not the likeliest thing one would want to read from cover to cover, but that’s what I’m doing. Why? Because this is the intro stats course I never took in university. It’s highly readable, with an informal style, and it focuses on explaining concepts using real data from familiar sources, rather than pushing theories and equations at you. The emphasis is on using software to do the computational work, with examples included for some of the more common stats packages. (One of the authors, Paul Velleman, is the developer of Data Desk, the software I use.) This book is for the beginning student in statistics, but it wastes no time getting right into correlation, regression and statistical models. Again, a book with the potential for being foundational for people who need to use data in their work.

The Nonprofit Buyer: Strategies for Success from a Nonprofit Technology Sales Veteran, by Andrew Urban (2010, CreateSpace) was written by a guy with extensive experience in sales of technology to the nonprofit sector, working with vendors such as Convio, Kintera, and Serenic Software with a background that includes grassroots work as a donor, volunteer, board member, and staffer. I have to admit that the subject of this book is not riveting (unlike, say, statistics!), but it IS important. All of us deal with vendors and we all have to evaluate what solutions are best for our organizations — sometimes a painful process. Analytics products, tools and training are some of the more expensive investments nonprofits can make, and we don’t do it as well as we ought to. As Andrew Urban observes, vendors put more training in learning how to sell to a nonprofit than a nonprofit puts into learning how to buy. This book helps to level the playing field, which can only lead to more fruitful and long-term vendor-customer relationships that benefit both parties. NOTE: On January 26, Andrew Urban will be giving a free webinar based on a concept from his book, presented by Click here: Return on Mission.

I don’t get anything for recommending books; I will leave you to surf your own way to purchase any of these three.

Back in June I urged readers to buy their own books, as part of taking responsibility for their own professional development. You might also consider checking out your closest university library, or the student bookstore where you might find used copies of textbooks. There’s also Bookmooch, a fantastic book-exchange service that I’ve used heavily over the years to dispose of books I’m no longer interested in while receiving all kinds of books that I want. (Unfortunately, though, sought-after nonfiction doesn’t come available very often.)

Then there are free online resources such as blogs. I read a variety of blogs on fundraising, statistics, personal productivity, technology and other topics. I don’t actively follow any particular blog. Rather, links to specific posts come to me via Twitter, sent out by the people I follow. You won’t miss much that is truly of interest to you if you follow the right people, and I try to promote quality posts by re-tweeting anything that I think deserves to be read. You can follow me here, if you think I retweet stuff that interests you.

I read books at home on the couch with a glass of red wine, which may help explain my limited powers of concentration, but I read blogs and online media during my commute on the Number 80 bus. I’ve recently discovered Instapaper, which allows me to save plain-text versions of online content such as blog posts on my iPod Touch, for later reading when I don’t have an Internet connection. It works with other apps on the iPod (Twitterrific, Safari, and so on) to send content to a “read later” file, and you can also use a bookmark in your desktop computer’s browser to capture stuff that you come across at work and don’t have time to read.

Free or pay, paper or electronic — there are now so many sources of help and information that there is no excuse for not trying to get a little better at what you do.



  1. I still feel a bit guilty that I haven’t finished Joshua’s book on Analytics for Non Profits. It sits on my nightstand. My reading goes in spurts, better spurts when I can listen to a book on tape. –Marianne

    Comment by Marianne Pelletier — 20 December 2010 @ 11:05 am

  2. In addition, I just found this list of 40 blogs for statistics:

    They list you as one of them 🙂

    Comment by Jennifer Schmidt-Olomon — 20 January 2011 @ 4:41 pm

  3. 🙂

    Comment by kevinmacdonell — 20 January 2011 @ 4:57 pm

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