Tag Archives: big data

And Then This…

20 Apr

ER_QuoteAfter writing my last post, Iterations on a Profession, a couple of weeks ago, I was prompted to pick up my copy of Eleanor Roosevelt’s book, You Learn by Living, and re-read the first chapter entitled, “Learning to Learn.” It’s a favorite, filled with great words of wisdom and reminders that life isn’t much of anything, once we stop learning. There are many quotable passages, but I chose the above to share here. As you read it, remember this … it was written in 1960. Fifty years ago, “our world was startlingly new.” And surely 50 years before that and 50 years before that and on and on for as long as humans have been riding on the planet. I get hung up too often on how different everything is today, how much change I’ve experienced in my lifetime and in my profession – all in the same timeframe since Mrs. Roosevelt wrote these words. Adapting to change is nothing new. 

The other line from that chapter that lifted my spirits, “if you are interested, you never have to look for new interests. They come to you.” Yes. Thank you for reminding me that it’s a gift to be interested, Mrs. Roosevelt.

Now then, while I was brooding over things, my bookmark folder got filled again. Time to share some with you.

Conference time is upon us and that means many are busy making posters to show off their projects, work, ideas, etc. Better Posters is a great resource to help you make a not-so-awful-and-all-too-common academic poster. Blog posts are added frequently and humor is never in short supply.

Remember Bridget Jones, the character portrayed wonderfully by Renee Zellweger in the movies of the same name?  Well, you may or may not know that her character came to be from a regular column authored by Helen Fielding for the British newspaper, the Independent, in the 1990s. The Independent recently ceased publication of its print paper, becoming a digital-only media outlet. Fielding was interviewed on NPR’s Morning Edition late last month. She speaks of many things, but one of particular interest to my readers might be her thoughts on what’s lost in the shift from print to digital. Anything? You’ll have to listen to find out.

Several items related to data (because, you know, it’s a lot of what I do):

  • A real-life demonstration of the use of big data can have dramatic effects on the child welfare system – Can Big Data Save These Children, from PBS NewsHour.
  • The National Center for Health Statistics has a nice collection of data visualizations that I’d never come across before. Bookmarked. 
  • Gravy Anecdote is the blog/website of Andy Cotgreave, a Technical Evangelist for Tableau. I watched a very informative webinar that he did entitled, How Data Storytelling Can Enhance the Way You Communicate, one in the series produced by BrightTALK. I’ve watched several of their webinars and found many to be quite good. Note, there’s an audio glitch a few minutes in to Andy’s talk. Just wait through it. It doesn’t last long. (Live and learn.) From this talk, I discovered Periscopic, a data visualization studio on the West Coast (USA) doing some amazing work. You can browse through some of their portfolio. I also found Ben Jones’ blog, DataRemixed. Ben also works for Tableau. It’s going to take me awhile to get through all of the things here.
  • Why all of the Tableau focus? One reason is because last week I was trying to teach myself how to use it to create a social network visualization. I found some help from the blog post, In Chaos, Clarity: Social Network Diagrams in Tableau. I remain irked that NodeXL is a Windows-only add-on for Excel (Mac user that I am), but there are workarounds. Believe me.

Just a few more and these are mostly for fun.

Kurt Vonnegut diagrams The Shape of Stories in this YouTube video. I love one viewer’s comment, “It’s like a cross between a college lecture and a stand-up comedy routine!” It’s pretty funny AND informative. 

If you need a story about how to turn a bad situation into something good, read My Wife Left Me with Nothing but a Dog, So I Started this Fun Photo Series. Amazing! I love that dog!

Photos of the archives of the Smithsonian Natural History Museum made the social media rounds a few weeks back. In case you missed it, you can catch up here. I would love a tour some day.

And finally, the one thing that has preoccupied me for more hours than I dare say over the past month… the DC Eagle Cam. Mr. President and the First Lady had a pair of eaglets in March and I have been FASCINATED watching them grow. And I’m not alone. They’ve gotten press on both National Public Radio and the Washington Post. They reside in the Azalea Collection at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, DC. Watch online. You can’t get close to them in person.

And with that … Happy Spring!!

Is Big Data Missing the Big Picture?

27 Apr


When I was defending my graduate thesis a number of years ago, I was asked by one of the faculty in attendance to explain why I had done “x” rather than “y” with my data. I stumbled for a bit until I finally said, somewhat out of frustration at not knowing the right answer, “Because that’s not what I said I’d do.” My statistics professor was also in attendance and as I quickly tried to backtrack from my response piped in, “That’s the right answer.”

As I’ve watched and listened to and read and been a part of so many discussions about data – data sharing, data citation, data management – over the past several years, I often find myself thinking back on that defense and my answer. More, I’ve thought of my professor’s comment; that data is collected, managed, and analyzed according to certain rules that a researcher or graduate student or any data collector decides from the outset. That’s best practice, anyway. And such an understanding always makes me wonder if in our exuberance to claim the importance, the need, the mandates, and the “sky’s the limit” views over data sharing, we don’t forget that.

I really enjoyed the panel that the Medical Library Association put together last week for their webinar, “The Diversity of Data Management: Practical Approaches for Health Sciences Librarianship.” The panelists included two data librarians and one research data specialist; Lisa Federer of the National Institutes of Health Library, Kevin Read from New York University’s Health Sciences Library, and Jacqueline Wirz of Oregon Health & Sciences University, respectively. As a disclosure, I know Lisa, Kevin and Jackie each personally and consider them great colleagues, so I guess I could be a little biased in my opinion, but putting that aside, I do feel that they each have a wealth of experience and knowledge in the topic and it showed in their presentations and dialogue.

Listening to the kind of work and the projects that these data-centric professionals shared, it’s easy and exciting to see the many opportunities that exist for libraries, librarians, and others with an interest in data science. At the same time, I admit that I wince when I sense our “We can do this! Librarians can do anything!” enthusiasm bubble up – as occasionally occurs when we gather together and talk about this topic – because I don’t think it’s true. I do believe that individually, librarians can move into an almost limitless career field, given our basic skills in information collection, retrieval, management, preservation, etc. We are well-positioned in an information age. That said, though, I also believe that (1) there IS a difference between information and data and (2) the skills librarians have as a foundation in terms of information science don’t, in and of themselves, translate directly to the age of big data. (I’m not fan of that descriptor, by the way. I tend to think it was created and is perpetuated by the tech industry and the media, both wishing we believe things are simpler than they ever are.) Some librarians, with a desire and propensity towards the opportunities in data science will find their way there. They’ll seek out the extra skills needed and they’ll identify new places and new roles that they can take on. I feel like I’ve done this myself and I know a good plenty handful of others who’ve done the same. But can we sell it as the next big thing that academic and research libraries need to do? Years later, I still find myself a little skeptical.

Moving beyond the individual, though, I wonder if libraries and other entities within information science, as a whole, don’t have a word of caution to share in the midst of our calls for openness of data. It’s certainly the belief of our profession(s) that access to information is vital for the health of a society on every level. However, in many ways it seems that in our discussions of data, we’ve simply expanded our dedication towards the principal of openness to information to include data, as well. Have we really thought through all that we’re saying when we wave that banner? Can we have a more tempered response and/or approach to the big data bandwagon?

Arguably, there are MANY valid reasons for supporting access in this area; peer review, expanded and more efficient science, reproducibility, transparency, etc. Good things, all. But going back to that lesson that I learned in grad school, it’s important to remember that data is collected, managed, and analyzed in certain ways for a reason; things decided by the original researcher. In other words, data has context. Just like information. And like information, I wonder (and have concern for) what happens to data when it’s taken out of its original context. And I wonder if my profession could perhaps advocate this position, too, along with those of openness and sharing, if nothing more than to raise the collective awareness and consciousness of everyone in this new world. To curb the exuberance just a tad.

I recently started getting my local paper delivered to my home. The real thing. The newsprint newspaper. The one that you spread out on the kitchen table and peruse through, page by page. You know what I’ve realized in taking up this long-lost activity again? When you look at a front page with articles of an earthquake in Nepal, nearby horses attacked by a bear, the hiring practices of a local town’s police force, and gay marriage, you’re forced to think of the world in its bigger context. At the very least, you’re made aware of the fact that there’s a bigger picture to see.

When I think of how information is so bifurcated today, I can’t help but ask if there’s a lesson there that can be applied to data before we jump overboard into the “put it all out there” sea. We take research articles out of the context of journals. We take scientific findings out of the context of science. We take individual experiences out of context of the very experience in which they occur. And of course, the most obvious, we take any and every politician’s words out of context in order to support whatever position we either want or don’t want him/her to support. I don’t know about you, but each and every one of these examples appears as a pretty clear reason to at least think about what can and will happen (already happens) to data if and when it suffers the same fate.

Are there reasons why librarians and information specialists are concerned with big data? Absolutely! I just hope that our concern also takes in the big picture.