If I could rewind time and choose a different career, I think something like data analyst might be right in my wheelhouse.
Yeah, that definitely doesn’t sound like a very sexy job to most people, but I can’t help it. I like data. Spreadsheets are my friends.
If you’ve followed the news reporting that I do and not just my column, perhaps you’ve noticed over the years that a lot of the big stories I write have some kind of data angle to them, or include charts or “By the numbers” pullouts.
Just within the last month I’ve written stories about Noble County’s home building, Noble and LaGrange county tax rates and criminal filings around the four-county area, all of which included data in the telling.
The basic gist of each of those stories started like this: Here’s what happened last year and how it compares to 2018 and earlier.
I’ve also rounded up a bunch of other stories with studies from various online outlets — Kendallville is the 33rd best place to live in the U.S., Indiana is the 29th drunkest state, and LaGrange County is the sixth least-educated county in America. Those stories are all based in data analysis too.
While I get all kinds of these “studies” in my email all the time, I don’t spend the time to round up all (or even most) of them into little things for the paper. The main reason for that is a lot of those things I get mailed are just junk.
It’s a good reminder of a personal mantra I have and something I tell younger reporters when they start working on stories like this: Data is a foundation for a story, but it’s not the whole story.
In order to bring numbers to life, you have to add appropriate context.
The perfect example of this is that LaGrange County story I did two weeks ago. LaGrange County is the least-educated county in Indiana and sixth least educated county in the U.S.
If you take that at face value, your first thought is probably, “Wow, people in LaGrange County are dumb!”
But as I pointed out in the story that I did produce from that study, context is key. Why is LaGrange County ranked so poorly? It’s due to its huge Amish population, which doesn’t typically attend school past eighth grade.
I guess on a technical level, yes, LaGrange County is the least educated county in Indiana because of it. But it’s not really a fair comparison. When your ranking is heavily weighted to look for areas with low high school graduation and low college-degree attainment, of course LaGrange County is going to be last.
It’s the same deal when the annual county health rankings come out. LaGrange County is also 92nd out of Indiana’s 92 counties for uninsured population. Uh, yeah. Many (most?) Amish don’t carry health insurance. So of course that rate is going to be double the rate of Noble or DeKalb or whatever.
So, is Kendallville really the 33rd best place in America to live? Judging by the responses on our Facebook page after I posted the article, residents seem to have a mixed opinion.
I, personally, didn’t particularly care for that study. Trying to measure a “best place to live” is subjective to start with and the study’s scope was pretty narrow. Cheap housing and groceries don’t necessarily make somewhere a great place to live.
I remember a study I received about a year ago from some website that no one had ever heard of that claimed Kendallville was named “best up and coming housing market in Indiana!”
I actually emailed the people back wanting to see the numbers. Because, at the time, there was little to no home building happening and housing was a continuing major problem.
According to the study, Kendallville’s market was “hot” because home values were rising at a faster rate than other communities in the state.
I suppose that’s good if you own a house already, that maybe it’s appreciating a little faster than other places. But if you’re trying to buy a house in Kendallville, good luck, because inventory remains super low and, until last week’s announcement of a 70-unit subdivision on Sherman Street, there was basically nowhere in town to build new.
Data is great when it is something that is quantifiable, objective and when you have a lot of context for it. That context is key.
“More Americans are working than ever before!” politicians in power love to proclaim.
Sure, but there are more Americans living than ever before, so it follows that more Americans than ever are employed. That’s a garbage stat.
A better measure — the employment rate as a percentage of the population — has actually declined.
But even that doesn’t tell a whole story. Rates are declining because a huge Baby Boomer cohort has hit retirement age, so it’s logical that rate would fall off. Even that statistic doesn’t tell a whole story on its own.
Data is simply the “what.” But you need to dig deeper to answer the questions of “how” and “why,” which are higher-level thinking questions.
Context, analysis of data is required to make it truly meaningful.