Critical Consumers of Data
This last week has been one really long year. Here in Union County, NC, we found out on Thursday that there was a Boil Water Advisory due to an abundant presence of E.coli in our water system leaving most of us feeling like this:
As you can imagine, the local response and panic was compounded due to the global pandemic issue. While authorities were working diligently to fix the issue and communicate with the general public, I watched as some in our community responded with fear, some with facts, some with data to push an opinion, and others with humor. I was fascinated as the community’s response to this local crisis mirrored that of the concern over the global pandemic.
This week, we’ve all looked at lots and lots of data explaining the spread of the coronavirus, how to #flattenthecurve of the virus through social distancing and hand washing prevention, and listened to first-hand stories as members of our global community share their experiences to inform those of us in the Western hemisphere. To put it shortly, we’ve been inundated with data this week, and I fear that period has only just begun.
While data scientists have named the last two decades the “Information Age” because of the flood of information accessible to the general public due to the increase in connection to the internet, this last week feels like a really concentrated version of that, like the caffeine intake escalation that occurs when you switch from hot chocolate to espresso. Chances are that social media sites will continue to feel this way until the virus outbreak begins to decline.
Both experiences made me wonder: What does it mean to be a critical consumer of data?
Normally, as math teachers, we’d say use the standards of math practice to make sense of how we define critical consumption. For instance, we’d want a critical consumer of data to be able to:
1. Make sense of data and persevere in using it to make inference.
2. Reason abstractly and quantitatively about the data presented
5. Use appropriate tools strategically, including information found on a graph to construct an argument or critique the reasoning of others.
6. Attend to precision when reading a graph, making sense of both what is fixed and what varies, and communicating one’s uncertainty clearly.
For me, the current standards of math practice leave something to be desired. What I keep looking for within them is a way to communicate to students the ethics behind data use, not just a how to calculate and then make sense of data, but what to do with the information once you have it.
For instance, check out this tweet by Francis Su (@mathyawp):
If a student were to look at this graph, based on the definition of critical consumer of data above, would they be able to:
Make sense of the data presented and make inference around, for example, the difference between polio and COVID-19? ✅
Reason quantitatively about whether COVID-19 is more fatal in comparison to other known diseases? ✅
Use the tools of this graph to communicate with others how fearful one should be over the possibility of fatality if one does contract COVID-19?✅
Attend to precision in understanding the variability around the range provided for COVID-19 in the graph? ✅
So what is @mathyawp calling irresponsible? If none of our definitions for critical consumers of data include ethical use of communicating, we forget the purpose of data. The purpose of data is to serve the people. When we stop humanizing the people we are serving, we stop being critical consumers of data.
This week, as you try to drink in graphs like this,
Let’s try to be critical consumers of data who:
Question the author’s intention behind the graph
Make sense of the message the graph/data is sending.
Use more than one piece of data to make a decision or create an opinion because we know there is variability between graphs.
Are comfortable with the uncertainty that comes when something is unknown.
Hold others to sharing data that is humanizing and serves the people.
Socially Distant but Close at Heart,