This is going to be a while. In East Lansing, MI, I went out for the first time in a while to buy groceries and other essential supplies (don’t worry, I was NOT hoarding toilet paper). Having witnessed some misguided behavior just 10 days ago, it was refreshing to see the extent to which people are taking social distancing seriously. Howie Hua (@howie_hua) captures my feelings on the matter:
His commentary about social distancing also raises a point about the difference between physical and socioemotional connection. Although we find ourselves physically distant from one another, this outbreak highlights the extent to which relational proximity matters more than ever. Perhaps it has always mattered, and we have been too occupied with our next meeting or our next promotion to be the stewards for one another that we have always needed to be. But in this particular crisis, relational proximity takes on a new meaning, one that forces us to confront the fact that our actions, attitudes, and beliefs have a quantifiable effect on the lives of others. The explanations of curve flattening make the impact of our decisions clear. And yet despite the fact that countries around the world are urging citizens to stay at home, some people still continue to go about their business. To be fair, for many people they have little choice, and it is up to our governments to provide the necessary relief.
There has been no shortage of data and analysis on the coronavirus and the impact it has had on us. In last week’s GMD, Lauren Baucom (@LBmathemagician) raises the question: what does it mean to be a critical consumer of data? Importantly, she talks about the ethics of data consumption, which attends not just to how we calculate data but also what we do with data once we have analyzed it.
Inspired by the simultaneous distance and closeness we have found ourselves in relation to one another, I’d like to throw a related wondering out there: what role do we play as critical producers of data?
There are several ways to address this question. Of course, there is the obvious role that people play in producing the data that we see in the news. Nonetheless, we ought to remind ourselves that data comes from people and not from the heavens as absolute truth. I have found this medium article helpful in that regard.
There is another, more subtle way in which we become producers of data: by sharing and analyzing data ourselves, we become part of the mobility by which data travels and spreads, only to be analyzed and consumed by others. For instance, consider this tweet from Matt Jones about Kentucky versus Tennessee, which Julie Jee (@mrsjjee) retweeted and eventually found its way onto my Twitter feed:
Beyond making sense of this data and using it to construct arguments, we must consider the ways in which we are responsible for its production and dissemination. This point raises questions, which I argue are mathematical in nature, such as:
- Why has this data become widespread?, and
- Where are the sources of my data, and in what ways do I serve as a source of data for others?
Finally, there is a third and even more subtle way in which we might be responsible for the production of data. This way relies on the idea that the prevalence, availability, and accessibility of data is not a neutral process. The production of data is deeply entangled with the attention we as humans give to any given issue. For instance, consider this article that speculates that the coronavirus might be the biggest search trend in Google history. Of course, search history metrics are complicated and so it is hard to say for sure whether coronavirus reigns supreme. But I think few people would disagree that this pandemic has taken center stage in the theatre of our attention.
I know that I can’t stop thinking about the coronavirus, and that’s OK. And anyone who tries to underplay its seriousness is about as wrong as this guy:
That said, I can’t help but wonder: where has this same widespread and urgent proliferation of data and analysis been as we fought and continue to fight racism, sexism, and ableism in our education and other social systems? I am not arguing that coronavirus should not be a priority, but I am arguing that we have faced and continue to face “epidemics” that are world shifting, deadly, and disastrous to our social, mental, spiritual, and economic health. The coronavirus is simply more blunt. Perhaps this pandemic will help us rethink our role with respect to the numbers that we attend to and that surround our lives.