woman with laptop on numeracy data backgroundIf you’re involved in any way with analyzing information, you undoubtedly are acquainted with the term “big data” by now.  There is certainly a proliferation of electronic data becoming available in increasing abundance. But just because there’s more of it, is it really that much different from the data we’ve had right along? I’d argue that the basics are still very much the same but with the addition of both rich possibilities for finding meaning and daunting challenges for filtering out the noise.

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In this blog series, which I’m calling Practical Analysis, I’ll explore the emerging role of the analyst in helping to answer some questions that I’ll discuss below and in building a body of knowledge to take advantage of the data deluge. Hopefully by the end, you’ll be completely jazzed about your future as an analyst!

The opportunities that data provides

Bigger, richer more timely data does present many incredible opportunities. But whether data is big, small or somewhere in between, the same questions loom:

  • How do we make sense of it?
  • How do we know when we’ve arrived at the truth?
  • Where do we even start?
  • Is it enough to engage in hit or miss “ad hoc” observation hoping to stumble across a chance discovery – as many computer-based analytical tools now allow just about anyone to do?
  • Or is there a more systematic and ultimately more productive approach?

The topic of “numeracy” has been cropping up in the news recently – largely because of our relative lack of ability in that area in the U.S. – at least compared with the rest of the world. Numeracy is the analytical complement to literacy. Where literacy involves communicating via the written – and spoken – word, numeracy includes the disciplines necessary to understand numerical data. Though it’s actually the combination of both that allows us to effectively transform raw data into useful knowledge.

I suggest that by employing a few, fairly basic, techniques, you can begin to make sense of what initially may seem like just a jumble of numbers. “But I’m not good at math,” you say? Actually, what you learned through junior high school likely provides you with the essential level of numeracy necessary to apply these basic tools. And, what’s more: if you’re inclined toward literacy, you can employ the power of numeracy to strengthen your written and verbal communication through factual evidence and insightful interpretation.

Fundamental aspects of numeracy

In the Practical Analysis series, I’ll explore some powerful concepts and techniques that will help you to better understand and practice numeracy. In particular, we’ll look at three fundamental aspects of numeracy: analyzing, interpreting and communicating.

  • Analyzing: Analysis involves applying well established mathematical and statistical techniques to your data to help you understand the patterns that may be hiding within the numbers.
  • Interpreting: Those patterns provide you with a basis for interpreting the data by making hypotheses on how it’s related to things in the real world. And then you get to use the data all over again to prove – or disprove – those hypotheses.
  • Communicating: Finally, once you’ve uncovered something meaningful and are able to defend your conclusions, you get to tell your story. That’s the communication piece; and without it, your hard work will never make it beyond your own thoughts. So whether through charts, tables or narrative explanations, communication is your opportunity to share your discoveries and reasoning with others, who can in turn add to it.

The fundamentals behind numeracy have been evolving for centuries with much of the most brilliant and insightful work being done long before the advent of electronic computers. Big data and vast computing capacity provide opportunities to build on this foundation of knowledge with new insights that were beyond the reach of those pioneers of numeracy. As the analysts of the 21st century, it’s our turn to write the next chapter in the evolving story of numeracy.