Spreading Optimism in Data analysis, can it save us?

Last night, I ventured out of my normal routine and headed off to a “Meetup” with folks who sought to “create space and opportunities for ongoing collaboration of non-profit data partners and data enthusiasts to explore interesting data sets for the greater good.”

Four Ways to Slice Obama’s 2013 Budget Proposal,

[Note, the full interactive graphic can be found at The New York Times ]

Big data and Business intelligence or applying analytic and visualization tools to explore and understand data have been steadily gaining their share of business headlines in the last few years.  If I was more deft, I’d be able to show you a graphic illustration.  But that’s the point of why I went to the meetup.  To learn where and how to do exactly that!

I met several people, bolder than I, willing to put their ideas out in front of others before they were fully baked. Even better, these individuals were bold enough to push their initiatives in spite of the usual skepticism.

Compelling policy action with data

For example, the overlap of homeless people in neighborhoods with vacant buildings and apartments, sounds like a solution begging for grease to make happen.  One attendee, a researcher, wanted to document the problem and then find folks willing to help change the situation. The grease might be converting the vacant properties to low-income housing, or an unemployment  PLUS housing voucher system.  Better yet, why not offer training in home and building maintenance,  a program for home repair that puts the homeless to work to earn their rent? The researcher came looking for help to find the data and see what if anything could be done in Chicago.  I happened to have investigated this questions briefly (see my post on the Rosenwald homes) and shared with her that indeed there were lots of organizations and public private partnerships working on this issue.  For her, the meetup proved useful and helped her further her interests.

Policy wonk that I am, I recognize wider issues these simple ideas overlook.  What I applaud however, is the willingness and gumption of technically skilled, many highly educated PhDs who have voluntarily bound together to tackle the status quo.  In spite of my own experiences and deeper understanding of the problem, the Data luck meetup tapped my ever-present optimism and willingness to engage, and I guess that’s what prompted this post.  I too, sense  a good argument, made with honest data,  can and should sway people to correct problems.  Don’t you?

It’s certainly hard to roll back a policy after it’s been implemented.  When new information or new insights emerge, typically the absurdity of the original solution only manages to compromise best intentions.  The results represent the flaws or misconceptions of the original framers of the problem.  The revelations of more problems, as in the example public housing created of co-dependence and how it helped sustain poverty for people who grew up in these projects.  The emergent data just as easily undermines the willingness of lawmakers to find a better solution.  Instead the aggregate data leads them to impose more rules and regulations to prevent cheating which does little to correct the underlying problem.

How is it that we have growing government? Adding rules to correct for the limitations of the original legislation, like any patch, is easier than starting over and addressing the problem from scratch.

Amending vs legislating

The Constitution, of 1789 was an overhaul within 10 years of the final ratification by all 13 colonies of the first constitution, or the Articles of Confederation which had effectively bound the states after the American revolution. Beginning with 10 amendments, in two centuries, Congress has amended the constitution only17 times, while it enacted numerous laws.

Today, Congress appears to be passing less legislation, as illustrated in the following summaries featured by Ezra Klein in the Washington Post and govtrack.

The scare of governmental encroachment, or interference in our lives may be the rallying cry of many; additional data however, suggests other factors.

Congress                       No Action  Action      Failed      Enacted # and %

106th (1999-2000)            7460            922           28           558 (6%)

107th (2001-2002)            7750             841           5              350 (4%)

108th (2003-2004)            7045              932         13           476 (6%)

109th (2005-2006)           9141             930         22           465 (4%)

110th (2007-2008)            9218           1382       39           442 (4%)

111th (2009-2010)            9239             998        26           366 (3%)

112th (as of 8/4/2011)    3956               305         7              20 (0.5%)

(source: http://www.govtrack.us/blog/2011/08/04/kill-bill-how-many-bills-are-there-how-many-are-enacted/  )

Drafting a bill, as the blog points out certainly requires some thought, and the leadership in each party tends to only let those bills with a chance at passage actually reach the Congressional floor for votes.  This explains the relative low # of fails, in spite of the discrepancy between the number enacted and those receiving some action.

Not clear how to interpret the relatively low proportion of enacted legislation.  Is it a sign of efficiency, or the complete log jam that makes progress impossible? Anyone know whether repealing a piece of legislation , such as the repeal of Glass-Steagall would be tallied as enacted?

The challenge

One thing is clear, having more volunteers who are not part of a political action committee, or beholden to a particular ideology other than honest analysis, can only help.  The value of new tools and data visualization certainly helps, but as the presenters at last night’s Data luck meetup reminded, you still have to clean the data before beginning the analysis.  I’m eager to learn how to use some of these tools, and access more data to help tell a different story.

I’ve got no problem using shame to illustrate the inadequacy of a policy, or the stranglehold of private interests that stand in the way of progress.  What do you think? Any and all suggestions are welcome.


The Doublesided Why: How do you get returns on your energy?



When was the last time you did a quick market reality check to test your assumptions about what you do that  keeps your customers in your corner?  No, I’m not suggesting a survey. I propose you try a much simpler approach, something that easily helps you  simultaneously help them.

Your why makes you memorable

Photo credit Connie Denton, Greenville fountain

Floating Value photo by Connie Denton

When you invite customers or employees to be curios or start a  conversation, do you ever  ask yourself why you took the time, or why you care about their reaction, whether their responses matter?  Do you ever assume the other role, think about why your customers would be interested in engaging with you?  What you do has two sides; and yet is it the same value on both sides?

If  you know your end game and how your efforts to engage customers gets you there, then measure and share that internally as widely as possible, and then begin to report it externally. You’ll discover the true meaning behind Peter Drucker‘s adage, that what gets measured, gets done.  So why not focus attention on the very elements that demonstrate purpose and create consistent value from all perspectives?

Start with Feedback

Whether you have a newsletter, use regular outbound communication, or just ask for comments or feedback  online, make sure the copy delivers on the answers you just gave to the double-sided why.   The questions are harder to answer than their simplicity suggests. Engagement is not the same as attention and revenue follows one and not the other.

The Harvard Business Review Blog published yesterday an obituary for the death of marketing. In this post, Bill Lee does a great job showing how challenging it is to communicate your meaning and he also identifies a series of corrective tactics, but none of them will help you if you can’t answer for yourself the double-sided why.

A better beginning, before you start additional strategic planning, or publish upcoming budget guidelines, I suggest using the remaining weeks of summer to conduct some simple experiments.

Take a few weeks to stop, look and listen. Learn what your employees are saying in the hallways,  the parking lot and the natural way they carry themselves, their changing energy in the course of the day. Similarly, notice your customer’s expression when they arrive and when they leave.  Connect the observations to their behavior. Try not to do it big brother style, maybe hire a sketch artist to sit at the entrance or main traffic corridor.

Spend a few weeks picking up the phone, or dropping a few personal notes, reaching out with no direct expectation to randomly selected customers and  employees.  Drop-in, notice the environment and feel the attitude as well as the climate, consider how the physical space controls behavior both positively and negatively. Collect information and then in a few weeks gather your senior team to review it objectively with no expectation other than surprise to discover what works, what comes back when, why and with what feedback.

3 Simple outreach tips

Here are three things that you can do today to provoke engagement with employees and/or customers.

1. Thank them. Thank them for being your customer and let them know that you appreciate their business. A thank you  reminds your customers you are there, ready, willing and able to serve their needs.

2.  Share some news that might interest them.  This means you have to know something about your customers, their interests, their aspirations and their concerns.

Its easy in light of a national tragedy like the senseless violence in Colorado to merely let them know how you, in your business contributed to ease the pain.  Perhaps you sent a donation to a charity that reminded you that actions make a difference.  The trick?  Connect your news to boost the spirits of  your customers,  let them know that they inspired you to take actions.

3.  Share a nice memory.  Nothing warms people more than when someone else shares something personal. The story or moment you describe and share by definition must be personal, something about you and your business that reminds them that you are human, that reveals a little more about what you value in life.

At the end of the day, we all want security but with inspiration we all do better.  Feel free to share that tag line.

Try it and share

Remember these are merely tips, designed to stir up your own thinking and I’m just as interested in hearing from you as you may be in learning about others.   Hope you will consider dropping a line or sharing what you are learning or the technique that you plan to try, you tried and what works and what doesn’t.

In the last few weeks,  I have followed my advice and the results are already surprising me.  I don’t wait to ask my clients or prospects, I’ve asked everyone  5 key questions.  I’ll be sharing those results in the next few weeks, so stay tuned for more tune-up tips.