Beyond the Numbers 2018 Day 1 #data #BTN2018

I had the opportunity to attend the Beyond the Numbers conference at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis this week. This biennial event brings together librarians, archivists, and economists from all over the country to talk about the challenges in economic information access and use. Usually they add their presentation materials every year so check back for slides. I’ve never been to the conference but have heard a lot about it from IASSIST members since it started in 2014. I arrived late because of teaching and plane malfunctions, but I was able to attend a few sessions on Thursday.

Data Play

The first was with Christine Murray from Bates College talking about using R for economics data. She did a great job showing both the basics of using R and then how to do use the pdfetch package to work with time series from economic data vendors like FRED, BLS, and others. I’ve imported data using API but this package makes it much easier to work with these particular vendors.  You can also visualize and layer time series within R. She created a great libguide showing how to use R for economics. Definitely going on my data play list for winter break.

The second was Kate McNamara’s Evidence-Based Research with the Census Bureau Data Linkage Infrastructure. Kate talked about the new efforts in the Census Bureau’s Data Linkage Infrastructure program. This is related to the  Federal Statistical Data Research Centers (FSRDCs) located around the country (our closest is at Duke) that have administrative data from a wide variety of government agencies that are linked together. Researchers must apply to access the data and it has been a lengthy (and slightly cumbersome process). One of their efforts is to promote evidence building projects that are collaborations between Bureau researchers and academics. The difficulty for academics in the past has been that, while there is a data inventory, the CB hasn’t provided detailed metadata about the available datasets and information on what unique identifiers are available for linking datasets. Without that information it can extremely difficult for researchers to know before they apply if the data will be useful. The CB is preparing though to post that metadata on ICPSR and create a new inventory available to the public. That is REALLY exciting news for data users.

Finally,  Kristin Fontichiaro and Wendy Stephens presented on From “Skip the Numbers” to “Great Stuff”: A Data Education Project. These LIS professors created a project geared to high school teachers and media center specialists to help them integrate statistical literacy into their curricula. Their project, Creating Data Literate Students, made the rounds a while back and they have recordings from past virtual conferences if you are interested. For lower level or data adverse students, the principles and teaching suggestions are very helpful. They also have two free books on teaching statistical and data literacy in teaching. I’m xcited to read Lynette Hoelter’s chapter! She does some great work at ICPSR.

So, day 1 is a wrap. Today we learn more about data and I am presenting on the PEGI Project. Exciting stuff and more to come!

A dream of a “fact-based worldview:” The passing of Hans Rosling

Have a few hours to kill? Gapminder is the thing for you!

For the past seven years I have used Hans Rosling’s video “200 countries, 200 years, 4 minutes” as an introduction to economic development. I teach a general education course, so the students have varying levels of comfort with data and economics. The video has always generated lively discussions about development. The students talk about how we conceive of “poverty” and if a standard of living measure is sufficient. They usually on their own develop an understanding of poverty that aligns with the Human Development Index. They on their own bring up questions about access to adequate food and access to public schools and free education. We also have discussions of inequality within societies, which Rosling nicely demonstrates in his China example in the video.

Rosling passed away yesterday and it is a great loss for many communities of practice, including the government information world. He worked to promote a fact-based worldview through his TED talks and the development of Gapminder. His aim in all of these endeavors was to make data accessible to everyone as a protection against ignorance. His videos provide a entree into world where data is used to ask questions and test hypotheses rather than just support opinions.

If you aren’t familiar with Rosling, I encourage you to watch his videos, especially his most famous TED talk (below). He was a visionary and, in this world of alternative facts, he will be missed.

The Ghost Map

The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic–and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World

Finished: Jan. 17
Rating: A-

I have to admit I sometimes enjoy a good epidemiological history. Johnson’s account of the 1854 cholera outbreak in Victorian London is engaging, but the focus isn’t so much cholera as the larger challenges of urban living. Within the vein of epidemiological history, I preferred Marilyn Chase’s The Barbary Plague in which she describes the development of the bubonic plague in Victorian San Francisco from 1900-1909. Of course she had a larger event to describe so the focus stayed solidly on the plague. Johnson’s account seems a bit more scattered, but it reads well. His descriptions of the city and its…um…untidiness are strong enough that you feel like you could be standing (and smelling) in the middle of Soho. He is able to balance his narrative elements against his description of the cholera virus and medical aspects of the story.

As someone who enjoys the beauty of data visualization this book is a good look into the gathering of real life data and the illumination of a problem through the visualization of the data. Unfortunately, the idea of the ghost map felt a bit perfunctory like it was tacked on to the end of the story. Also, his epilogue, on the difficulties and triumphs of modern urban living in relation to sustainability, disease, and nuclear weapons while a fascinating read seem to take the focus away from his original story (and from the ghost map again). Overall it is a good read, especially if you like medical histories.