CoolData blog

13 November 2016

Where we go from here

Filed under: Off on a tangent — Tags: , — kevinmacdonell @ 6:17 pm

 

Disbelief, anger, helplessness, anxiety. Does that describe your week just past? It certainly describes mine.

 

Given the nature of this blog, you might expect me to be dismayed at how poorly the number-crunchers fared in forecasting the outcome of this presidential election. But no, I don’t care about that.

 

While Tuesday night’s events were still unfolding on television, and long before any protestors took to the streets, voices of reason were already reminding us not to despair. I held onto three examples of these calm voices, because I figured I would need them. I would like to share them with you.

 

The first came around midnight, when it was starting to dawn on me that things were going to end badly:

 

“When voices of intolerance are loudest don’t be despondent — be emboldened, and even more committed to values of diversity and inclusion.”

 

That was a tweet from Richard Florizone (@DalPres), president of Dalhousie University, where I work. His words seemed too oblique when I first read them, somehow falling short of the righteous outrage called for by the occasion. But with the distance of a few days, when my head was cooler, I appreciated that this message was just right.

 

The second helpful piece of advice was a quote by French philosopher and political activist Simone Weil (1909-1943):

 

“Never react to an evil in such a way as to augment it.”

 

Such a succinct antidote to our instinct for knee-jerk retaliation! This quote came to me from the perennially wonderful Maria Popova (@brainpicker), a Bulgarian writer, blogger, and critic living in Brooklyn, New York. Her blog, BrainPickings.org, features her writing on culture, books, and eclectic subjects.

 

And finally, a simply-worded tweet from fundraising professional Lindsay Brown (@DonorScience) in Boston completed this circle of advice with a call to action:

 

“Now more than ever, it’s apparent to me that the work we do in the nonprofit sector is massively important. Let’s keep up the good work.”

 

This is only a sampling of the many calm and wise words spoken in recent days, but they will suffice. What do these three sentiments, taken together, advise us to do?

 

First, we are reminded that the Trump victory has not nullified the values of diversity and inclusion, nor impeded our ability to promote them. We need to understand why he was elected, and by whom (including millions of former Obama supporters who failed to vote), and to address root causes of political extremism. We need to understand, not denigrate, in order to clarify what we need to do to.

 

Second, whatever we do we should avoid making problems worse. Don’t move to Canada! As much as I’d love to have you here (in the unlikely event that Canada enables such immigration), please know that your country needs you now more than ever. For those outside the U.S. who feel like disengaging from that country via a boycott (which was my own initial response), please reflect on the consequences of feeding isolationism. And rioting in the streets against the outcome of a free and fair election can have no legitimate result. During the campaign, President Obama repeated the refrain, “Don’t boo — Vote!” Today we can say, “Don’t boo — Act!”

 

Third and finally: Never doubt that our sector is a vital player in creating a better world, despite not being directly “political”. Higher education and a host of nonprofits can build up and defend what Trumpism wants to tear down, and can help create diverse societies to combat the irrational fear of the Other that helps elect leaders like Trump in the first place.

 

The bad news is perfectly clear: that a radicalized faction of white extremism has just elected a dangerous, unpredictable leader animated by ethnic nationalism and xenophobia; that a nation that could have made history by electing its first woman president instead chose a man who abused and denigrated women and boasted about it; that a nostalgia for a bygone decade before civil rights has accompanied an irrational belief that advancement of ethnic minorities threatens the white, working-class status quo; that a country with international commitments to fight climate change has just elected a leader who doesn’t even believe climate change is a real thing.

 

This sudden clarity — this stunning proof that we have not made nearly as much progress as we thought — should be strong motivation not to despair but to get right to work.

 

I don’t have a prescription for what anyone needs to do. It depends on where you are, what tools you have to work with.

 

Do we have work to do at home? I’m willing to bet your daughters are prepared to take on a sexist world, but what are you telling your sons in order that they will help to create a new world?

 

What can we do in our neighbourhoods? Can diverse communities be brought together to interact? Can we replace mere proximity to the Other, which leads to tension and irrational suspicion, with familiarity and interdependence?

 

What causes and projects can we support with our dollars, our time, and our expertise to increase the ability for marginalized people to participate in the economy, to protect the environment, to support reputable journalism, to extend access to education, to promote people’s rights, to fight cynicism about politics and government?

 

There is so much — no one can do it all. I am still thinking about my own “what now?” list, and I know I have to choose wisely. But like voting itself, it is the accumulation of millions of individual actions that lead to dramatic overall results. Let’s agree that it is no longer enough to hold certain opinions, no longer enough to share the right memes on Facebook, no longer enough even to believe that our duty stops with voting and paying taxes.

 

As Hillary Clinton said the day after the election, “… our Constitutional democracy demands our participation. Not just every four years, but all the time. So let’s do all we can to keep advancing the causes and values we all hold dear. Making our economy work for everyone — not just those at the top. Protecting our country and protecting our planet. And breaking down all the barriers that hold any American back from achieving their dreams.”

 

These words can apply just as well to citizens of the United Kingdom, where far-right xenophobia prevailed in the Brexit vote, and to citizens of Canada, where extremist politicians are already talking about emulating Trump, and to people anywhere else in the world who are free to speak and act.

 

Disbelief, anger, helplessness, anxiety. Yes, there’s a time for all of those things. But let’s not subside into resignation, division, hopelessness, and cynicism. Instead let’s each of us look at our immediate surroundings and figure out what we can do. And then, roll up our sleeves and get to work.

 

1 February 2016

Regular-season passing yardage and the NFL playoffs

Filed under: Analytics, Fun, John Sammis, Off on a tangent, Peter Wylie — Tags: , , , , — kevinmacdonell @ 7:37 pm

Guest post by Peter B. Wylie, with John Sammis

 

How much is regular-season passing yardage related to success in the NFL playoffs? (Click link to download .PDF: Passing yardage in the NFL.)

 

Peter was really interested in finding out how strong the relationship might be between an NFL team’s passing during the regular season and its performance in the playoffs. There’s been plenty of talk about this relationship, but he wanted to see for himself.

 

A bit of a departure for CoolData, but still all about data and analysis … hope you enjoy!

 

18 January 2015

Why blog? Six reasons and six cautions

Filed under: CoolData, Off on a tangent, Training / Professional Development — Tags: , — kevinmacdonell @ 4:12 pm

THE two work-related but extracurricular activities I have found the most rewarding, personally and professionally, are giving conference presentations and writing for CoolData. I’ve already written about the benefits of presenting at conferences, explaining why the pain is totally worth it. Today: six reasons why you might want to try blogging, followed by six (optional) pieces of advice.

I’ve been blogging for just over five years, and I can say that the best way to start, and stay started, is to seek out motives that are selfish. The type of motivation I’m thinking of is intrinsic, such as personal satisfaction, as opposed to extrinsic, such as aiming to have a ton of followers and making money. It’s a good selfish.

Three early reasons for getting started with a blog are:

1. Documenting your work: One of my initial reasons for starting was to have a place to keep snippets of knowledge in some searchable place. Specific techniques for manipulating data in Excel, for example. I have found myself referring to older published pieces to remind me how I carried out an analysis or when I need a block of SQL. A blog has the added benefit of being shareable, but if your purpose is personal documentation, it doesn’t matter if you have any audience at all.

2. Developing your thoughts: Few activities bring focus and clarity to your thoughts like writing about them. Some of my ideas on more abstract issues have been shaped and developed this way. Sometimes the office is not the best environment for this sort of reflective work. A blog can be a space for clarity. Again — no need for an audience.

3. Solidifying your learning: One of the best ways to learn something new is by teaching it to someone else. I may have had an uncertain grasp of multiple linear regression, for example, when I launched CoolData, but the exercise of trying to explain data mining concepts and techniques was a great way to get it all straight in my head. If I were to go back today and re-read some of my early posts on the subject, which I rarely do, I would find things I probably would disagree with. But the likelihood of being wrong is not a good enough reason to avoid putting your thoughts out there. Being naive and wrong about things is a stage of learning.

Let’s say that, motivated by these or other reasons, you’ve published a few posts. Suddenly you’ve got something to share with the world. Data analysis lends itself perfectly to discussion via blogs. Not only analysts and data miners, but programmers, prospect researchers, business analysts, and just about anyone engaged in knowledge work can benefit personally while enriching their profession by sharing their thoughts with their peers online.

As you slowly begin to pick up readers, new reasons for blogging will emerge. Three more reasons for blogging are:

4. Making professional connections: As a direct result of writing the blog I have met all kinds of interesting people in the university advancement, non-profit, and data analysis worlds. Many I’ve met only virtually, others I’ve been fortunate to meet in person. It wasn’t very long after I started blogging that people would approach me at conferences to say they had seen one of my posts. Some of them learned a bit from me, or more likely I learned from them. A few have even found time to contribute a guest post.

5. Sharing knowledge: This is the obvious one, so no need to say much more. Many advancement professionals share online already, via various listservs and discussion forums. The fact this sharing goes on all the time makes me wonder why more people don’t try to make their contributions go even farther by taking the extra step of developing them into blog posts that can be referred to anytime.

6. Building toward larger projects: If you keep at it, slowly but surely you will build up a considerable body of work. Blogging can feed into conference presentations, discussion papers, published articles, even a book.

Let me return to the distinction I made earlier between intrinsic and extrinsic motivators — the internal, more personal rewards of blogging versus the external, often monetary, goals some people have. As it happens, the personal reasons for blogging are realistic, with a high probability of success, while the loftier goals are likely to lead to premature disillusionment. A new blog with no audience is a fragile thing; best not burden it with goals you cannot hope to realize in the first few years.

I consider CoolData a success, but not by any external measure. I simply don’t know how many followers a blog about data analysis for higher education advancement ought to have, and I don’t worry about it. I don’t have goals for number of visitors or subscribers, or even number of books sold. (Get your copy of “Score!” here. … OK — couldn’t resist.)

The blog does what I want it to do.

That’s mostly what I have to say, really. I have a few bits of advice, but my strongest advice is to ignore what everybody else thinks you should do, including me. Most expert opinion on posting frequency, optimum length for posts, ideal days and times for publishing, click-bait headlines, search engine optimization and the like is a lot of hot air.

If you’re still with me, here are a few cautions and pieces of advice, take it or leave it:

1. On covering your butt: Some employers take a dim view of their employees publishing blogs and discussing work-related issues on social media. You might want to clear your activity with your supervisor first. When I changed jobs, I disclosed that I intended to keep up my blog. I explained that connecting with counterparts at other universities was a big part of my professional development. There’s never been an issue. Be clear that you’re writing for a small readership of professionals who share your interests, an activity not unlike giving a conference presentation. Any enlightened organization should embrace someone who takes the initiative. (You could blog secretly and anonymously, but what’s the point?)

2. On “permission”: Beyond ensuring that you are not jeopardizing your day job, you do not require anyone’s permission. You don’t have to be an expert; you simply have to be interested in your subject and enthusiastic about sharing your new knowledge with others. Beginners have an advantage over experts when it comes to blogging; an expert will often struggle to relate to beginners, and assume too much about what they know or don’t know. So what if that post from two years ago embarrasses you now? You can always just delete it. If you’re reticent about speaking up, remember that blogging is not about claiming to be an authority on anything. It’s about exploring and sharing. It’s about promoting helpful ideas and approaches. You can’t prevent small minds from interpreting your activity as self-promotion, so just keep writing. In the long run, it’s the people who never take the risk of putting themselves out there who pay the higher price.

3. On writing: The interwebs ooze with advice for writers so I won’t add to the noise. I’ll just say that, although writing well can help, you don’t need to be an exceptional stylist. I read a lot of informative yet sub-par prose every day. The misspellings, mangled English, and infelicities that would be show-stoppers if I were reading a novel just aren’t that important when I’m reading for information that will help me do my job.

4. On email: In the early days of email I thought it rude not to respond. Today things are different: It’s just too easy to bombard people. Don’t get me wrong: I have received many interesting questions from readers (some of which have led to new posts, which I love), as well as great opportunities to connect, participate in projects, and so on. But just because you make yourself available for interaction doesn’t mean you need to answer every email. You can lay out the ground rules on an “About” page. If someone can’t be bothered to consider your guidelines for contact, then an exchange with that person is not going to be worth the trouble. On my “About this Blog” page I make it clear that I don’t review books or software, yet the emails offering me free stuff for review keep coming. I have no problem deleting those emails unanswered. … Then there are emails that I fully intend to respond to, but don’t get the chance. Before long they are buried in my inbox and forgotten. I do regret that a little, but I don’t beat myself up over it. (However — I do hereby apologize.)

5. On protecting your time: Regardless of how large or small your audience, eventually people will ask you to do things. Sometimes this can lead to interesting partnerships that advance the interests of both parties, but choose wisely and say no often. Be especially wary of quid pro quo arrangements that involve free stuff. I rarely read newspaper travel writing because I know so much of it is bought and paid for by tour companies, hotels, restaurants and so on, without disclosure. However, I’m less concerned about high-minded integrity than I am about taking on extra burdens. I’m a busy guy, and also a lazy guy who jealously guards his free time, so I’m careful about being obliged to anyone, either contractually or morally. Make sure your agenda is set exclusively by whatever has your full enthusiasm. You want your blogging to be a free activity, where no one but you calls the shots.

6. On the peanut gallery: Keeping up a positive conversation with people who are receptive to your message is productive. Trying to convince skeptics and critics who are never going to agree with you is not. When you’re pushing back, you’re not pushing forward. Keep writing for yourself and the people who want to hear what you’ve got to say, and ignore the rest. This has nothing to do with being nice or avoiding conflict. I don’t care if you’re nice. It’s about applying your energies in a direction where they are likely to produce results. Focus on being positive and enabling others with solutions and knowledge, not on indulging in opinions, fruitless debates, and pointless persiflage among the trolls in the comments section. I haven’t always followed my own advice, but I try.

Some say “know your audience.” Actually, it would be better if you know yourself. Readers respond to your personality and they can only get to know you if you are consistent. You can only be consistent if you are genuine. There are 7.125 billion people in the world and almost half of them have an internet connection (and access to Google Translate). Some of those will become your readers — be true to them by being true to yourself. There is no need to waste your time chasing the crowd.

Your overarching goals are not to convince or convert or market, but to 1) fuel your own growth, and 2) connect with like-minded people. Growth and connection: That’s more than enough payoff for me.

25 June 2014

How our sector is getting its butt kicked by just about everyone

Filed under: Analytics, Data, Off on a tangent, skeptics — kevinmacdonell @ 8:24 pm

There isn’t a lot to do at my wife’s family summer cottage when it rains, especially if I’ve forgotten to bring a book. I find myself scanning the shelves for something — anything — to read. On one such recent rainy weekend, I picked up a book my niece had left on a table. It was a heavy hardcover textbook, and it contained a mild surprise.

What I found was an introduction to such topics as liner and non-linear relationships, probability, scatterplots, best-fit lines, and correlation — concepts that I’ve come to have a deep interest in, mainly because I have profitably put them to work in the service of fundraising and alumni engagement.

Was this a college textbook? A manual for budding data scientists?

No, not at all. My niece is in Grade 9, and this was her mathematics textbook.

I don’t know if the Nova Scotia math curriculum is typical, nor am I qualified to judge the quality of a textbook. And my niece may not be thrilled about learning statistics. But some group of experts in math education apparently believe these concepts are well within the grasp of young Nova Scotian minds. Power to them.

What does this have to do with you? Yes, plastic young minds may grasp with relative ease what we oldsters struggle with (new languages, for example), but we have one distinct advantage. Where adolescents view these concepts as abstractions without a purpose, we may immediately see how we can use them to advance our causes, and our careers.

Yet, we all know otherwise intelligent people in our field whose eyes glaze over when they see a chart or hear anything that sounds like math — even Grade 9 math. Somehow, we must be failing to demonstrate the connection between analytics and success in fundraising and alumni engagement.

So in what fields is analytics really taking root? Well, every field. Including farmers’ fields.

Food production has been a focus of science and statistics for many decades. But today it’s not confined to experimental farms or the labs of agribusiness companies. Real, honest-to-goodness farmers are enthusiastic quants compared to most of us working in the nonprofit sector.

tweetJennifer Cunningham @jenlynham is Senior Director, Metrics and Marketing in the Office of Alumni Affairs at Cornell University. In a recent email to me and my “Score!” co-writer Peter Wylie she writes: “Just gave a talk today at the National Agricultural Alumni and Development Association (NAADA) conference. Went on a hayride this afternoon with the group here at Penn State. The farmers here are using data like you wouldn’t believe. Guys have been farming for 30+ years and they’re going on and on about the importance of measuring input vs output … it’s so interesting to hear these old-school guys go on about the importance of it in their worlds. And yet, some people in our industry, raising billions, still don’t get it?!?!”

It’s a fair observation.

I have a lot of time for people who are not enamoured with analytics due to an unfamiliarity with working with numbers. They require explanations and justifications for using analytical methods. That’s fine. I myself didn’t see math as having much to do with my working life until I entered my mid-thirties, and sometimes I still think the right story beats numbers.

But like our friend Jennifer, I feel less sympathy for ignorance when it’s a deliberate choice. There’s a line where lack of interest in data equates to wilful illiteracy. Someday soon, being on the wrong side of that line is going to disqualify a person from working for important causes.

27 December 2012

Holiday indulgence

Filed under: Book, CoolData, Off on a tangent — Tags: , — kevinmacdonell @ 4:35 pm

I’ve always tried to stay on-topic with CoolData content: If you subscribe, you know what you’re getting, and if you lose interest and unsubscribe, you know what you’re missing. But I’m on holiday, so I’m inclined to let content rules slip a bit. My wife and I are spending time with family on Cape Breton Island and in the Annapolis Valley in Nova Scotia. I’m less vigilant than usual about what I eat (more turkey, more sweets, more wine) and what I do (nothing, essentially). It is in this state of desuetude that I write this last blog post of the year.

Allow me to indulge by writing not about predictive analytics, but about CoolData itself, which has just turned three years old. That’s middle age for a blog, I figure. First I’ll go through some numbers, and then I’ll tell you about some things coming in the new year.

CoolData by the numbers

As of yesterday, CoolData has had 177,915 page views since it was launched. The number of visitors continues to grow gradually; 6,000 page views a month is the current average. These are page views, not unique visitors: WordPress has been informing me about unique visits only since early December. So far, each unique visitor averages 1.4 page views.

Visits have come from almost every country in the world, but of course most are from the United States. It is not unusual for my own country, Canada, to be edged out of second place by the UK, India or Australia on any given day. The top 20 or so countries since February 2012 are included in the WordPress-created graphic below. (Click for full size.)

countries

These visitor numbers are not small, but I’m not pretending they’re impressive, either. My subject is rather niche. As well, many visitors aren’t really looking for CoolData. Half of my traffic comes from people stumbling in from Google and other search engines, and they’re looking for simple (or simplistic) explanations of statistical concepts. The most popular post by far is How high, R squared? — published in April 2010, it is still heavily visited every day by confused and desperate grad students from all corners of the globe. I don’t consider these people part of the CoolData “tribe”, if I can call it that.

The tribe — the readers I care most about — are typically the ones who have subscribed to receive updates. (There are also a lot of RSS subscribers — I don’t have as good a handle on those numbers.*) As of today, there are 680 subscribers — 48 subscribers via WordPress accounts, and 632 via email. This number has been growing very gradually over the past three years. I realize many people sign up for things they never return to (I do it all the time), but when an update goes out, I estimate that about half of my subscribers click through to the new post, which I find encouraging. They are far more likely to click through than my followers on Twitter (@kevinmacdonell).

Most readers visit during the work week (readership drops off dramatically on weekends), so not surprisingly most subscribers use their real work address rather than a free Gmail, Hotmail, or Yahoo account. From my own research, I know providing a work email is associated with higher levels of engagement, and “.edu” addresses alone (US-affiliated higher ed institutions) account for 293 subscribers. Another 101 addresses have the less restrictive top-level domain of “.org”. Among country-specific top-level domains, the top ones are Canada (.ca) with 46 and the United Kingdom (.uk) with 29. There are 142 “.com” addresses, and roughly half of them are Gmail, Yahoo or Hotmail. There are 443 unique domains in all, the top ones being uw.edu (University of Washington) and ubc.ca (University of British Columbia).

Start writing!

Up to now I’ve been coy about answering questions about my stats, for no real reason. I figure I might as well come clean. I have long felt that there is more room for writing on this topic, so if knowing more about my readership encourages you to start your own blog, then I encourage you to make 2013 your year to step up. All it takes is a few minutes to sign up on WordPress or similar free service, and start writing.

If you’re not up for creating your own blog, then consider writing a guest post for CoolData. Up to this point, guest posting has been by invitation only, but starting today I am open to receiving post ideas from anyone interested in writing on the topic of predictive analytics for nonprofit fundraising or higher education advancement (including alumni engagement). I plan to limit submitted guest posts to one per month. Multiple submissions are welcome, but submissions that are completely off-topic will not get a response. Email me at kevin.macdonell@gmail.com to suggest/discuss your idea before you start writing.

No more comments

As I begin a new year, naturally I think of changes I’d like to make. For one, I will be taking a new approach to comments on posts. Only 514 comments have been contributed since December 2009, and 140 of those are mine. This is not a disappointment — I had no designs one way or the other — but the time has come to recognize the fact that CoolData has never been effective as a discussion forum. There have been a few good questions and observations made by commenters, but unfortunately too many comments are of the “drive-by” variety: Brief one-off criticisms that require rebuttal but never lead to any forward advance in the discussion or added enlightenment for beginning predictive modelers. The best questions, the most honest comments, and the most well-reasoned objections tend to come to me via private email.

For that reason, I am shutting off the ability to respond with public comments. There have been no nasty personal attacks, nor abusive language, nor anything I’ve felt forced to delete (aside from spam). I simply feel that, after three years of writing and editing this blog, I no longer feel the need to provide a platform for people whose main interest is something other than being part of a shared endeavour to learn, to grow, and to bring our institutions and organizations into the age of data. Responses, questions, critiques are always welcome via private email, and I may choose to gather the best responses for use in followup blog posts. Keep in mind, too, that the best forums for discussion are still the listservs (Prospect-dmm is the best example), and new conversations crop up every week in the many groups of interest you can find on social networking sites such as LinkedIn.

SCORE!

On a more positive note, 2013 will be the year that a new book, Score!, which I have co-written with Peter Wylie, will be published. I’ve said very little about it to date, in part because I won’t actually believe it until it’s in my hands. It’s a project with a long gestation … writing a book has nearly nothing in common with knocking off a blog post. However, I’m confident we’ll see it out sometime during the first half of the year.

That’s all for 2012. Best of luck in your data-related work in 2013!

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* A regular reader who subscribes via RSS reminded me that I have given short shrift to the RSS crowd — I just don’t know how many subscribe via RSS. It is quite possible, then, that I am overestimating the number of email subscribers who click through to the post.

20 July 2012

Bus driver math

Filed under: Off on a tangent — Tags: , — kevinmacdonell @ 2:24 pm

When a bus holding 50 commuters is forced to wait for 30 seconds for a runner to catch it, the runner has saved the 15 minutes it will take to wait for the next bus, but the total cost in time is 50 people x 30 seconds, or 25 minutes. By this math, the driver is doing the world a favour by stepping on the gas and leaving the runner behind.

I was taking the Number 80 bus to work the other day when an elderly woman got on. As we were pulling away, she realized she had left her bag on a bench at the stop. She got the driver to halt and got off. She took quite a long time to make her way back, and the driver waited for her — I think she was surprised, but she appreciated it.

This driver chose not to apply the math. And I am glad he didn’t. I suspect most people on the bus felt the same way. We were mildly inconvenienced, but people are reassured when they see public examples of compassion. Yes, we still live among human beings. (Even if drivers are trained to sometimes be lenient, which I don’t think they are.)

When I advocate a data-driven approach to making decisions, I am speaking of specific scenarios, not an approach to life itself or a way to rid ourselves of experience and human wisdom.

Don’t expect me to conclude with twaddle such as “the most important things in life just can’t be measured” or “numbers aren’t everything.” (Blech!) The quantophobes among us are all too ready to embrace the half-truths in those statements and deliberately mistake them for the entire truth.

I prefer to say that there are small things, and there are big things. Don’t forget the big things while you are busy optimizing the small things. Efficiency with details may not always coincide with the greater good.

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