One of the Best Ways to Engage with Data

Pen(cil) and Paper.

I just finished “Smarter Faster Better” by Charles Duhigg and one of the points it made was people get into “Information Blindness”. They can’t see things because there is too much information. If one has too many choices one gives up and doesn’t make a choice. If that happens one needs to engage the data. Ask questions of it to get to the information one wants. It gave the example of choosing a wine. Red or white? What year? Cheap or expensive? Soon a long list can be manageable.

When it came to students, hand written notes were better than typed notes on a computer for better test results. Teachers at a low performing school were able to change the school by making cards for each student and seeing what the patterns were. They had the data on computers but they weren’t engaging it.

My opinion is paper and pen helps us because it is more like a picture. Our minds love pictures. And when we create pictures our minds connect with the information.

What has been your experience?

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9 thoughts on “One of the Best Ways to Engage with Data”

  1. Information that is not engaged with does not help. One needs to challenge and incorporate the information to get the benefit. Writing  by notes by hand helps in this process.

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  2. 10 Cents:
    My opinion is paper and pen helps us because it is more like a picture. Our minds love pictures. And when we create pictures our minds connect with the information.

    Entirely concur.  In my business, placing data about a business’s machinery in front of decision-makers in graphical formats is crucial.  Tables of data are only useful when drilling down to quantify cases.  Graphics let our minds find the meaningful patterns in the information.

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  3. I have taken notes for years – not so much that I would refer to them later, but the act of writing them down helped me implant them in my mind.

    Some of the best books I’ve seen on data presentation are those by Edward Tufte.  If  you get a chance to see a presentation by him, I recommend it highly.

    One of the best chapters is on the presentation of data before the Challenger accident.  The engineers felt that cold temperature would cause problems with the O-rings, but the data they presented to management showed the severity of O-ring damage as a function of the launch number.  There was no discernible pattern.  Tufte reorganized the data to show damage vs temperature at time of launch and the impact of temperature was obvious.

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  4. WillowSpring:
    I have taken notes for years – not so much that I would refer to them later, but the act of writing them down helped me implant them in my mind.

    Many years ago I read a book (I think it was Dragonfly by Bryan Burrough, but I may be mistaken at this remove) about the first NASA astronauts who went to Russia and trained for flights on the Soyuz and visits to the Mir space station after the fall of the Soviet Union.  They remarked about how different cosmonaut training was in Star City compared to how NASA did it.  For the detailed technical training on systems and procedures NASA would prepare thick briefing books and give talks with slides, which were distributed to those in the class on paper.  The Russians, however, gave long talks with blackboards, and it was up to those in the class to take notes and then distill them down into their own reference material, sometimes in collaboration with others in training.

    The astronauts remarked that when they asked about this, they were told it was part of a long tradition in Russia which pre-dated the Soviet Union—the idea that “knowledge is power”, and that if you write down what you know you may be giving away that power to others.  But also, the astronauts said that it was a very effective teaching technique, because being forced to decide what was important and write it down on your own reinforced it and made it easier to summon when you needed the information quickly.

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  5. 10 Cents:
    My opinion is paper and pen helps us because it is more like a picture.

    It depends upon the nature of the data.  Are you trying to memorise things or find patterns in a mass of data?  Most of what I do is the latter, and if I tried to do it with index cards or other manual systems it would be hopeless.  What I usually do is get everything into a spreadsheet or a computer-readable form that I can crunch in a variety of ways, ask questions about it, test hypotheses, and then produce visualisations which present the data in ways people can comprehend without looking at mind-numbing tables of numbers.

    For example, in 2004 I compiled my “Country Facts” database, which I have been updating and expanding ever since.  This is a large spreadsheet with all kinds of data for all of the countries and territories around the globe.  I have mined this for a number of my investigations, including:

    and numerous blog posts and comments.  Are you curious, for example, about how population density correlates with rate of GDP growth?  I can answer that in a couple of minutes.  If you had to do it by consulting original sources and hand-scribbled notes, you’d probably give up before getting far into the week or so it would take.

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  6. John Walker:

    10 Cents:
    My opinion is paper and pen helps us because it is more like a picture.

    It depends upon the nature of the data.  Are you trying to memorise things or find patterns in a mass of data?  Most of what I do is the latter, and if I tried to do it with index cards or other manual systems it would be hopeless.  What I usually do is get everything into a spreadsheet or a computer-readable form that I can crunch in a variety of ways, ask questions about it, test hypotheses, and then produce visualisations which present the data in ways people can comprehend without looking at mind-numbing tables of numbers.

    For example, in 2004 I compiled my “Country Facts” database, which I have been updating and expanding ever since.  This is a large spreadsheet with all kinds of data for all of the countries and territories around the globe.  I have mined this for a number of my investigations, including:

    and numerous blog posts and comments.  Are you curious, for example, about how population density correlates with rate of GDP growth?  I can answer that in a couple of minutes.  If you had to do it by consulting original sources and hand-scribbled notes, you’d probably give up before getting far into the week or so it would take.

    I don’t think do everything this way is practical. I see a combination as most effective. There is something about the scribbled word.

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  7. I take notes on paper all the time.  My totally uninformed and unscientific theory is that the physical act of writing helps focus the mind on what material is important, and makes that material easier to digest into the part of the brain that remembers and understands the concepts.

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  8. Damocles:
    I take notes on paper all the time.  My totally uninformed and unscientific theory is that the physical act of writing helps focus the mind on what material is important, and makes that material easier to digest into the part of the brain that remembers and understands the concepts.

    I don’t know if crayon counts, Damocles.

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