Aug. 3, 2015
‘Lies, damned lies and statistics’: School of Business delivers benefits of better data management
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In some circles, statistics have a bad reputation. Mark Twain implied statistics are the worst kind of lie, while humorist Evan Esar defined statistics as “the science of producing unreliable facts from reliable figures.” Why the mistrust in statistics? Because understanding data can be difficult.
“Many misunderstand data’s role in decision-making – leading to confusion between cause and effect,” said Peter Aiken, Ph.D., associate professor of information systems in the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Business. “It’s light outside and it’s daytime. That’s a correlation, right? Well that’s interesting, but in this case, just because we passed 12 hours, doesn’t mean it caused the light to come back on. What caused it was the earth revolving. It is only through better management of the data surrounding these questions of light and dark that we can begin to understand various causes and effects.”
As an authority on data, Aiken teaches his students how data management can help organizations to better approach various decisions, including separating reality from randomness. The exercises are so effective the state has taken note, tasking Virginia Deputy Secretary of Technology Anthony Fung — known informally as “Deputy Secretary Data” — with overseeing the state’s data re-engineering internships among his other duties.
Last fall, Gov. Terry McAuliffe established the program through VCU to explore additional uses of data to improve citizen benefits and state government effectiveness and efficiency. Based on Aiken’s curriculum, the internships provide a unique opportunity for graduate students to collaborate with chief information officers of participating states agencies. The students work in teams of two or three to evaluate available data and identify specific business cases in which data can be used to improve decision-making.
Data is the only resource we have that is a nondepletable, nondegrading, durable, strategic asset.
Why is this so important? Well, “big data” is more than just jargon.
“Data is the only resource we have that is a nondepletable, nondegrading, durable, strategic asset,” Aiken said. “We spend or invest fiscal resources, we wear out as human beings, capital assets degrade over time. … All organizations maintain data assets and if you put in place a program to treat them with the respect they deserve, they will grow in value over time and more importantly the organization will mature in its ability to employ them productively in operations.”
About 20 state agencies and 45 students have participated in the internship since its launch last fall. Class participants gain practical experience using data to drive re-engineering. At the end of the semester, participating CIOs have concrete examples of how to make better use of data to provide innovative and less costly services to citizens.
For example, Aiken cites one agency that works with endangered children. Agency workers would go to homes with an 80-point checklist to evaluate specific cases. The VCU interns tested the variables to see how much impact each had.
“This team did a phenomenal job, determining [which] data collected had little or no impact on the cases,” Aiken said. “By getting rid of the data that’s in the way, we can concentrate on those aspects of the case that are really important. Separating correlation from causality. In the future, it will be easier to separate urgent from routine cases, permitting this agency to better allocate resources according to its mission.
“Once we have that type of a result, we can now package these results for other classes permitting increased analysis,” Aiken said. “The hope is that we can expand this program to other universities.”
Certainly the program benefits both the state and its students.
“We estimate that total agency benefits [include] permitting specialists to process more cases, focus more time on investigative work or reduce the paperwork requirements,” Fung said.
Benjamin Siegel has gotten so much out of the internship that he is now in his third semester of the program.
“Supplementing my textbook learning has increased my ability to meet prospective employer requirements,” said Siegel, an Army veteran who is pursuing a master’s degree in information systems. “I’ve grown by working on a real-world problem. I’m working with real-world people, with real-world problems and real-world deadlines. It motivates me to find the best possible solution because the outcome isn’t only a grade but the implementation of a solution I helped to create.”
I’m working with real-world people, with real-world problems and real-world deadlines. It motivates me to find the best possible solution because the outcome isn’t only a grade but the implementation of a solution I helped to create.
While typically information systems students apply for the internship course, it’s open to any graduate student in the School of Business. The course does not require students to have an information systems background, but it does require a background in data. Aiken said the program has attracted students from just about every School of Business department, such as accounting, finance and logistics. Moreover, he sees such a future for data analysis that he’s proposing a data course for all business undergraduates and collaborating with Jeff South, associate professor in the Robertson School of Media and Culture, on a possible interdisciplinary project with students from both schools.
“Our thinking is that Peter’s students would focus on compiling and analyzing large data sets and that my students might focus on putting a human face to the data — by using the data as the foundation for news stories,” South said. “In data journalism, reporters analyze data, find trends and anecdotes to support those trends, and then write news stories that combine statistical analysis and compelling narrative.
“It’s hard to make people care about numbers, statistics and data. But if we show how the data connect to ‘real people,’ then we can get the information across.”
If people understood numbers, statistics and data, they might care more. It’s challenging to teach statistics well, but worth it, Aiken said. Because if statistics are not properly understood, you are in danger of focusing on bizarre connections, such as the divorce rate in Maine correlating with the per capita consumption of margarine.
“If you looked at that, you’d say, ‘There must be a relationship,’ right?” Aiken said. “This is why we need the additional grounding to go in and say, ‘Is that coincidence or is that, in fact, causation?’”
Utilizing existing data to its fullest potential is a risk-free route to better efficiency.
“In a time when government is expected to do more with less,” Fung said, “data is a resource that we can turn into actionable information in order to get greater [return on investment] and improving programs and outcomes for our citizens. In government, we need to move toward a much more data-driven culture where we can measure the value we create."
For more information on the governor’s data internship, contact Peter Aiken, Ph.D., at email@example.com
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