Category Archives: Data

Counting scapegoats

Two articles from The Guardian caught my eye recently, about immigration.

That working-class lives are more fraught is not down to immigration
Economic, social and political developments have, in recent years, coalesced to make working-class lives far more precarious – the imposition of austerity, the rise of the gig economy, the savaging of public services, at the same time as the growing atomisation of society, the erosion of the power of labour movement organisations and the shift of the Labour party away from its traditional constituencies.

Immigration has played almost no part in fostering these changes.

2VCs on … what does 2018 look like for universities?
“There can be few if any rational arguments for including international students in the net migration figures,” Humphris says unequivocally. “The evidence is there. They do not overstay. They add hugely to the enrichment of our universities that should be global and outward-looking. They make a massive contribution. The whole debate around immigration and international students creates very unhelpful mood music.”

Some things are easier to quantify than others, but just because something is countable doesn’t mean that that is where we should be focusing attention or laying blame, surely.

A time before Excel?

An article from 1984 about these crazy new electronic ledger sheets, or “spreadsheets”.

A spreadsheet way of knowledge
There is no doubt that the electronic spreadsheet saves time and provides insight; there is no doubt that even greater benefits will one day be derived from these grids. Yet all these benefits will be meaningless if the spreadsheet metaphor is taken too much to heart. After all, it is only a metaphor. Fortunately, few would argue that all relations between people can be quantified and manipulated by formulas. Of human behaviour, no faultless assumptions – and so no perfect model — can be made.

I wonder what the author would have made of the Quantified Self movement, that attempts to incorporate data from a person’s daily life into various formulas and models. Spreadsheets are everywhere now, not just in the office of accountants from Cincinnati.

Your favourite passwords

As well as the obvious “12345678”, “password” and “qwerty” (I can’t believe people really use those?), it seems people’s names beginning with J are especially common.

Top 500 most common passwords visualized
Most common passwords. Is yours here? Also, after some deep analysis, we’ve discovered that passwords fit into 11 categories. See what they are.

If any of your passwords feature on that chart, please read this and change them. Right now.

The usability of passwords
Using more than one simple word as your password increases you security substantially (from 3 minutes to 2 months). But, by simply using 3 words instead of two, you suddenly got an extremely secure password. It is 10 times more secure to use “this is fun” as your password, than “J4fS<2”.

How to see 4000 years at once

A timeline of global power, from 2000BC to the 1900s.

The entire history of the world—really, all of it—distilled into a single gorgeous chart
The 5-foot-long Histomap was sold for $1 and folded into a green cover, which featured endorsements from historians and reviewers. The chart was advertised as “clear, vivid, and shorn of elaboration,” while at the same time capable of “holding you enthralled” by presenting: “the actual picture of the march of civilization, from the mud huts of the ancients thru the monarchistic glamour of the middle ages to the living panorama of life in present day America.”

It’s from the 1930s, so the terms it’s using are rather dated. And I can’t find Africa anywhere, Eygpt notwithstanding. Has there been no history there, these last four millennia?

I’d love see this expanded another couple of inches, to chart where we are today. That should be simple enough, surely?

All the graphs you can eat

What’s better than data and loads of graphs? Data and loads of graphs about food and drink, of course!

Britain’s diet in data
The British diet has undergone a transformation in the last half-century. Traditional staples such as eggs, potatoes and butter have gradually given way to more exotic or convenient foods such as aubergines, olive oil and stir-fry packs. Explore the changes across four decades and hundreds of food and drink categories in this interactive visualisation, featuring data from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

Whilst I’m not surprised to see the fall of lard and the rise of olive oil over the last 40 years, why is nobody buying marmalade anymore? Goodness me.

Visualising data; the good, the bad and the quirky

The data’s everywhere, but can we make sense of it? Here are some data visualisation approaches and examples – how to do it, and how definitely not to.

This article suggests the young folks are demanding better presentations of statistical data because of Google or Wikipedia or something. Sounds fishy. Surely us old folks appreciate good design too?

Data visualization drives the era of information activism
Having grown up with the web, millennials are used to having access to all the information they want with just a simple finger tap on a screen. As millennials enter the workforce, they are bringing these expectations into the office, behaving less as data consumers and much more as information activists.

But how far should we go in leading the horses to the water?

Narration and exploration in visualization
What should we emphasize when designing a visualization? Should we explain the data, perhaps through a narration, or should we let readers explore the data at will?

Here’s an example of how an interactive presentation not only helps with a story but can spur you into looking for your own.

What happens when a newspaper editor and a data-viz whiz team up to tell stories
With two wins behind them, Rob and Daniel are already discussing future collaborations—perhaps something with sports or crime data. The idea is to tell compelling data stories that have a longer shelf life. (“If you put time into creating something like this, you want people to see it over a certain scale of time,” says Daniel.)

I do like these images, though. Not sure how replicable this approach is, but it works well here.

These playful, funny 3D printed infographics can liven up any data
Instead of flicking hastily to the next page, your gaze can’t help but linger on the adventures of the miniature figures scaling, swinging from or exploring the plastic pieces.

But here are the real gems. Bar pies? Caramel latte football fields?

BestWorstViz contest result
As with last month’s graphiti contest, picking a winner was ever so hard with lots of wonderfully bad work heading my way. The submissions generally fell into two different camps: (1) the most blatant, inelegant in-your-face explosions of design awfulness, and (2) the more subtly deceptive “wolf in sheep’s clothing” designs. My judgments were based on the degree of violation against each of my three key principles: Trustworthy, accessible and elegant.

But who could possibly hate Excel?

This tool makes it stupid simple to turn data into charts
Here’s something handy for people who hate Excel. Venngage, the company that lets you make infographics with the click of (a few) buttons, recently launched a new product called Beam. Beam does for charts what Venngage does for infographics as a whole. Which is to say, it makes the process of transforming data into useful visuals very, very easy.

Better data? We’re all in it together

As someone relatively new to this sector and keen to check I’m going about things the most effective way, I was greatly interested in this new report from the Independent Teacher Workload Review Group, as it claims to “have developed recommendations to eliminate unnecessary workload in the recording, inputting, monitoring, and analysing of data”.

Data Management Review Group report: Eliminating unnecessary workload associated with data management
This report from the Data Management Review Group sets out principles and recommendations to reduce the workload burden on teachers. It calls on all parties in the education system to reduce the unnecessary burdens of data management by ensuring that every data collection has a clear purpose, and that the process is as efficient as possible.

Whilst the report does suggest some sound principles for effective data management — be clear on the purpose, identify the most efficient process, ensure the data is valid — I was disappointed there weren’t more recommendations that I could really get my teeth into and run with.

It was certainly interesting to read their suggestions for the DfE, including a call to “bring forward the release of both validated and unvalidated data to as early as possible in the cycle so it is available when decisions are taken to prevent unnecessary duplication by schools” and a recommendation that they should “reduce the number of different log-ins schools need to use simply to access and share information”. (All to be accepted, apparently.)

I felt, though, there was little I could directly take on board, as most of it was either just common sense and already taking place, or outside my sphere of influence.

But perhaps that was their point; for us to make any headway in increasing data management efficiency, we have to accept we’re all in this together, from the DfE and Ofsted, to local authorities and governing boards, not just data managers and teachers.

And they look really spidery too

Another great Excel article from Mynda Treacy​, this time about her​​ views on radar charts. It’s safe to say she’s not a fan. Some great points here about data visualisation and how to get messages across. I’ve never used a radar chart, but that’s more because I’ve never really understood them.

Excel alternatives to radar charts
Radar charts display data in a circular fashion, which is the opposite of the straight line comparisons we’re able to subconsciously perform. This means we have to work hard to make any comparisons and as a result we’re likely to make mistakes in our assumptions.​

She mentions this article ​by Stephen Few, who weighs in further but does recognise when these radar charts might have their uses.

Keep radar graphs below the radar – far below (pdf)
This one advantage motivates me to ease up just a bit on my repugnance toward radar graphs.

Data, data, everywhere – any of it helping?

Data and education. Educating ourselves with data? On data? Improving education by improving data?

We might have the data, but have we got the answers?
Regarding what he calls ‘technical validity’, are we measuring what we are supposed to be measuring? Then, in what he describes as ‘normative validity’, are we measuring what we value, or are we valuing what we measure? Two important questions for us all to ask about the data that our systems are awash with.

Some great points here, refreshingly honest, about the state of data and information in schools. And here’s a response of sorts, albeit from a higher education perspective:

Taking the data conversation to a new level
The publication of this report is a significant moment in our journey to build a better data infrastructure for UK higher education because it is coming from a very different place. The members of the Higher Education Commission are senior, experienced leaders, strategists and Politicians and previous Commission inquiries have addressed topics like the regulation and the financial sustainability of HE. These are not people whose natural habitat is the world of petabytes, XML and FUNDCOMP; they are perhaps the most un-nerd bunch you could ever assemble. Yet their decision to base this inquiry on data in HE is in itself a recognition of the fundamental transformations that data technology is enabling.

Meanwhile, though:

Students hit by University of Greenwich data breach
Students’ names, addresses, dates of birth, mobile phone numbers and signatures were all uploaded to the university’s website. They were posted alongside minutes from the university’s Faculty Research Degrees Committee, which oversees the registrations and progress of its research students. In some cases, mental health and other medical problems were referenced to explain why students had fallen behind with their work.