Enslavement Through Analysis

or “How Categorization, Data Analysis, and Factoring Out the Outliers Continues to Enslave Us Outside of Dr. King’s Dream — An Opinion

My job tends to present some weird moments to me. I work with data. Just electronic ones and zeroes. If you were to take my job back a short ways in history – I would be described as a wizard with an abacus. After all, my job is basically to count students, faculty and administration at a community college – and then find new ways to describe that some population set, and count it again. And again. And again. I work under terminology that the average lay-person would not quite understanding:  Success-rate, Withdrawal-rate, Completion-rate, data broken down into gender and racial categories – diced up further over the five physical campuses we have, the method that the class is delivered to the student. Believe me, there’s so many ways to describe the same population of data – merely by re-categorizing the members of the population and running the same mathematical formulas against those. Yah. Exciting stuff, eh? Another way I’ve heard this job position described is “Inside Baseball” stuff. Any baseball stats junkie (like me) would not only catch the reference, but also understand the context it is being placed in.

However, there are so many ways this categorize, calculate, re-categorize, recalculate stuff can be hurtful. Data manipulation has to be approached from a clean, ethical manner. Those of you that know me can stop hiding your smirks and sniggering behind your hands. Yes, even I have to follow some basic rules — such as not harming the individuals from whom I glean the information from. How can I do that? Its really not that difficult. Re-categorization can be done by gender, or by race, or by economic status, or by relationship status, whether the student has children of their own, whether they currently have a job, pay their tuition by financial aid, or out of their own pockets, the type of financial aid they receive or any combination of those factors. Its not all that difficult to play up one side versus another. Its really a matter of how you cut the data. That’s why I spend 90% of my time writing out my methodologies, reasonings, and analysis of the data. So the people reading the reports can understand the whys of my findings. I cannot guarantee that anyone reads that part of my analysis, but I require that it is in any data study I work on when I present the findings. To me, its the most important thing that I do.

I have a dream this evening that one day we will recognize the words of Jefferson that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” I have a dream this afternoon.

I have a dream this afternoon that the brotherhood of man will become a reality in this day.

And with this faith I will go out and carve a tunnel of hope through the mountain of despair. With this faith, I will go out with you and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. With this faith, we will be able to achieve this new day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing with the Negroes in the spiritual of old:

Free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty, we are free at last!

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke these words in his speech at the Great March in Detroit on June 23, 1963. Now some people may get hung up on the Christian phrasing. Or that Dr. King only addresses the races of black and white. Or the religious aspects of Jews, Gentiles, Protestants, Catholics or even that he only seems to aim his speech towards men. My take? Whatever. You’re letting wording of a time frame that is two years prior to my own birth over-shadow the wording of the overall message. Your right to do so – but that’s not what I am addressing here.

Within the narrow bounds that “modern American” society of his time afforded to him, Dr. King could see a land where divisions created through race, religion, creed – and eventually gender – would be broken down. Where people would see one another as equals with differences such as pigmentation, belief, and gender no longer mattering in the scope of daily life.

Binary WorldHave we reached that point? In some ways, yes. In many other ways, no. We still see racial inequality within the bounds of the United States. We still see how Christianity continues to dominate the cultural landscape in America, and attempt to crowd out all other faiths. We still have an Upper class that dominates a Lower class, while the ever-so necessary Middle-Class continues to shrink ever so much more than before.

Dr. King’s message wasn’t just about equality. Providing equality in a legal aspect is very easily attained – and has been done so in countless manners. His message is not about cracking skulls and forcing a position of equality. His message is about stepping up, being socially aware, being a force towards the one thing that equality cannot give you: respect.

His message was about carving a tunnel of hope through the mountain of despair – BUILDING ways towards the future. Paving the road for Hope and Respect for one another. And that’s not going to happen overnight either. The storm clouds will be dark, the rain will be cold and disheartening. People want very fast changes to take effect NOW. If it were only so that we could change hearts of people that quickly…

And violence is not going to solve the problem. In fact, it will only make it worse. Take for example the shooting that happened here in the DFW area just a few days ago. One group of people hid behind the Constitution in order to be as hurtful and insulting as they could towards members of the Muslim faith. During the day of their “event”, a protest area had been setup for Muslims to gather and express their outrage over the “event”. Not one person showed up and utilized the space. The usage of the space was where these folks wanted the media to film and watch. So that angry epitaphs and insults could be filmed and utilized as a “See? Did we not tell you what animals these people are?” However, two individuals in Arizona took enough offense and outrage to drive to Dallas, and open fire on law enforcement in the parking lot of the event. While these two may have felt their actions were vindicated — all they really did was prove the point that these folks were making with the event. Violence did not solve the problem – it only made the issue boil and fester in a way it would never have done if they had never shown up. Instead, the local news and talk radio stations are eating up this entire scenario, and spinning it one way or another to bludgeon their foes in the debate of the danger of Muslims within ANY country in the world. A totally stupid, irrational argument from both sides – which is now being provided the precious oxygen it needs to be “talked about”.

No, Dr. King is right in his words – we need to focus on the hope that we want. As President Obama mentioned several times in his first campaign: We are the ones who will affect change in the world around us. We are the people we have been waiting for. We have the power to change things, by merely making our intention known that we want a world where people are people. Regardless of color, regardless of belief, economic status, and what have you. But sometimes I wonder if this is what we really want? We – Pagans – talk about wanting equal footing, and yet we express our disdain for the entire Christian faith when we hear of a minister doing something wrong – or even an entire group of people (Westboro Baptist Church) do something repugnant. Instead of viewing these people as individuals – statistical aberrations – we paint the entire Christian faith as being just like these folks. I’ve seen it done the other way as well – where Pagans are branded as immoral, child rapists when a Pagan gets arrested for child porn or molestation. Perhaps we just broad-brush everything because its easier to do so – rather than to pick out the small pieces of garbage and differentiate them rather than the other way around.

In statistical analysis, broad-brushing an entire population by a result is done far too often. Particularly when the statistical percentage is over 75% in size. Very rarely do you see an analysis that points out that there were [x] number of points that were outside of the statistical curve. Sometimes, the outliers paint a far more descriptive understanding of the data than the overwhelming population does.

Somewhere…somewhere…I see a single point of data crying out to the rest of the digital environment:

I have a dream this nanosecond that one day we will all be recognized as individual data points. All with differing aspects that provide a unique descriptor of each of us. That one day, ones and zeroes will walk down the broadband avenue towards a user’s GUI presentation, hand-in-hand in the knowledge that we will be given equal representation within the interface by both the CPU and the End User. And we will then be free at last!

::sigh:: Until that day…I continue to fight my own fight within my own part of the world. That each data point represents a person. And regardless of the demographic breakdown of that student – they are an individual, with a unique story – and deserve to be represented as such within any analysis.

And the Crow Said

I am constantly reminded that Life is all about change. One of my favorite quotes comes from the TV show “The Highlander”:

“Life is about change, about learning to accept who you are: good or bad.”

–Duncan McLeod to Methos

And it is so very true. This morning, I find myself in a place I have not been in five years:  not teaching a college class. Honestly, its quite a frustrating moment to realize that. I have gone from being a professor to being an Assessment Analyst. Gone from teaching students to notice patterns in business data and practices, to utilizing that same instinct of pattern searching to assist the same college I taught for. And its a transition. One I am slightly uncomfortable making, and absolutely terrified at the prospect of starting.

To say that this has been on mind for quite some time is an understatement. I have heard people talk about those moments, when you are trying to get to sleep, and you find yourself staring at the ceiling in that darkness with your thoughts racing a mile a minute. That exact scenario has played out for me quite a few nights now. One in particular has now stood out in my memory – my dream from Saturday night.

The Dream

Crow in Trinidad, CO
Crow in Trinidad, CO

I have an Inner Grove that I consistently utilize in my daily meditations. Its a small meadow in the middle of a heavily forested area. In the center of the meadow are four things – three trees in a single line (Birch, Oak in the middle, another Birch on the other side), and a large rock about the size of a Volkswagon classic Beetle. I usually find myself sitting on this rock, lounging in the warmth of the sun during the day or basking in the ghostly shine from the Moon at night. At this particular moment, the sun is out, and my mind is wandering to my thoughts of terror concerning my upcoming job change. In the middle of my thoughts, a Crow hops down from the branches of the Oak. Its not uncommon for Crows to be a part of my dreams, so I am not startled at all. I nod quietly at the Crow, and start back towards my thoughts. And then the Crow speaks. This is extremely uncommon for me, the Crows never speak in my dreams. They caw at me, and occasionally bring me items, like buttons and bits of colored yarn. But this Crow clearly startles me with what is said:  “Everything you have done, leads to this moment.” And he flew away. When I awoke from this dream, I spent several minutes jotting down things – particularly what was said, so I would not lose what was said. Dreams have a funny way of dissipating from my memory very quickly after I awake, so I have taken to keeping a Dream Journal in the drawer of my nightstand.

During the interview, I was to give a presentation., which I did. At the very end of the presentation, I made a statement regarding my philosophy concerning data analysis.

If you look at the data and see only the numbers, you only get half of the story. Underneath all the numbers are countless stories. Stories of people, stories of lives, stories of dreams. In order to make sense of the data that is presented through instruments such as surveys and questionnaires, you have to dip into those stories. You need to understand the people from which the data is collected from. You don’t need to be an expert on them, nor do you need to interpret their dreams for their careers. You do need to understand where they are coming from – to find the relationship that starts the pattern that is recognized in the data.

For me, this is pure Druidry applied to a discipline that is as cold and unfeeling as data analysis. And from what I am told, this was the statement that cinched the interview for me.

And there’s a lot to think about — but let me take a step back to the Crow’s message in my dream. I have done a lot of stuff over my career. I have worked in nearly every position one can work in Information Technology. I have taught students about Information Technology and how it applies to their lives. I have three degrees – a Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science with an emphasis on Database Management, a Master’s degree in Information Systems Management, and a Master’s in Business Administration. Each of those areas will provide me with immeasurable experience and first-hand knowledge of the discipline I am about to undertake. I had just never thought of the jumbled steps in my career and collegiate studies to be inter-locking towards a particular job. Until the Crow said something.

I know that each step is going to be difficult to take in this position – particularly as I mourn the loss of my previous position of being a professor. I loved being in the classroom, I enjoyed talking with the students, making the material come alive and sing its song to each student in a unique voice that they could hear. But now, I get the chance to let a new song be sung, the song of the data that the school gathers from the students. I have the opportunity to sing my philosophy in an environment that should…nay…an environment that MUST look beneath the numbers and sing the story of the students, the faculty, and the administration folks. A collegiate environment is one geared towards study – the teaching of the students and the learning facilitated for the students. But put in those simple terms, its not alive. There are countless stories of students who place parts of their lives on hold, so that they can earn collegiate credits towards a diploma. A diploma that should propel them onwards into environments where their knowledge will walk hand-in-hand with their hard-work ethic to help them achieve their dreams. There are even more stories of faculty members who have stepped away from much higher paying jobs in their field of study, so that they can help facilitate the future through the students. And yet, these faculty members will most likely never see the achievement of many of those dreams – and may never even be aware of the dreams that their students harbor. How to get these stories in front of the data? I certainly have no idea how to make that happen – at least not yet.

Walk softly through the desert sands
Careful where you tread
Underfoot are the visions lost
Sleeping not yet dead

Hang on – Winds starting to howl
Hang on – The beast is on the prowl
Hang on – Can you hear the strange cry
Winds of change are blowing by

 

–Jefferson Starship, “Winds of Change”