Special Features

  • Featured
  • 04.17.19

Integrating Thick Data Into Our Work

  • by eAIR

eAIR recently caught up with Tricia Wang to talk about integrating thick data into the work of higher education professionals. Tricia, a global tech ethnographer who began her career as a documentary filmmaker for NASA’s Earthkam, is the Opening Keynote for AIR's 2019 Forum in Denver next month.

t-wangeAIR: How can organizations begin to focus on "thick data" to make the right business decisions?

Start asking questions and stop jumping straight to technology as the answer. I see a lot of organizations jump to software and technology without thinking about the people. They want to invest in things that are easy to buy off the shelf, such as dashboards, software, and big data tools. But that’s the easy part. The harder thing to do is to stop and ask the right questions, especially questions that cannot easily be answered by purchasing a new technology tool. Ask open ended questions that start with “why” and “how.” Ask questions that could challenge some very fundamental assumptions about your work. Ask questions that may lead to a rediscovery of the humanity of your work. Ask questions that will uncover the unknown.

eAIR: Without giving too much away, can you share a few highlights from your upcoming keynote address?

I’ll be talking about Integrated Data Thinking, a movement based in the belief that organizations cannot derive value from data without building the human systems needed to turn that data into actionable insights that drive business growth. My company, Sudden Compass, created this movement to help organizations get closer to humans - their customers, clients, and constituents. We advise organizations on how to implement this practice so that they can rapidly generate insights and execute actions.

Integrated Data Thinking follows these five principles:

  1. To drive business outcomes, data must be used by everybody in an organization, not just technical experts.
  2. Collaboration across data silos cannot be achieved with technology alone, and requires shared participation in a hands-on, teachable, and technology-agnostic practice.
  3. Quantitative and qualitative data must be used together to achieve both depth and scale of insights.
  4. Data can and must be used to answer both optimization-level questions (such as “which headline will drive the most traffic?”) and discovery-level questions (such as “how do we expand into a new market?”) 
  5. The value of data and data tools comes not from their scale or technical complexity, but rather from their ability to help people solve problems and answer questions.

eAIR: What are some ways that higher education professionals (those in IR, IE, and assessment) can use the human narrative to help positively impact student success?

One concrete talent solution is that on every single project I always hire communication designers. They are the secret weapons to bring to life the complexity of research in simple ways. Communication designers are triple threats. They are intellectual, graphic designers, and information visualizers.

eAIR: What stands out to you the most from your career as a documentary filmmaker for NASA’s Earthkam?

I learned that simplicity is smart, not stupid. My time with Sally Ride and her team proved to me that scientific endeavors, no matter how complex, can be communicated in simple ways. I had the opportunity to work with some of the world’s best scientists who believed that in order for their work to have impact, they were responsible to the public for explaining their findings on a human scale for non-experts.

Researchers believe that our work is so complex, that making it sound “simple” is a sign that the work is stupid. This is all about ego, not about impact.

What I learned, and am STILL learning, is that to communicate your findings, processes, and decisions in simple ways requires intellectual prowess. It is so freaking hard to communicate complexity. This is why I moved into the world of design. We are all designers. Design is about making choices. Design isn’t just about form - it’s not just about choosing a color palette or website layout. Design is also about choosing what emotions we want to convey and what we want to communicate.

We are constantly designing our lives whether we are aware of it or not. For example, as researchers, we are making choices all day about what ideas to communicate. Do we choose this variable? Do we focus on this question? What’s our sample size? How do we slice this data? How do we categorize this population? What are the most salient variables on which to focus? How do I present this information? It is super difficult to communicate our answers and decisions with clarity. So, aiming for simplicity speeds up clarity. Without it, we ultimately can’t make decisions.

Don't miss Tricia's session on Wednesday, May 29 @ 8:30 AM.

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