How Your Data is Like the Weather, Only Easier to Predict

By Mike Geers

“Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.”

Mark Twain

That quote, often attributed to Mark Twain, is one of my favorite quips, not only because it’s true and clever, but because it accurately describes what I see happening so often in my professional life. 

Whether it’s a municipal government, school district leadership, or businesses in any sector of the economy, we lament when performance lags or the numbers disappoint, but too often the complaints fail to result in remedial action. 

And so it goes for another week. Or another quarter. Or another year. The can gets kicked down the road, and the answers to the questions about what’s driving success or failure are left unanswered.

Just like the weather. We complain, but there’s not a whole lot that can be done about it.

Not true. In fact, we actually do quite a bit about the weather. We watch it. We study it. We measure it. We analyze it. We model it. And we even do our best to forecast it. Then we report it. We even decide what to do about it, after all (how to dress, when to travel, what to pack for vacation, etc.).

The same approach can and should be applied to our organizational performance metrics. But unlike the weather, we are not powerless to course-correct. In fact, quite the contrary.

Mine for Resources, Convert to Fuel

The thing about data—much like the weather— is that it’s there whether we like it or not…whether we choose to measure it or not.

Data is being recorded and stored every second of the day. Much of it exists for public access, such as census data, government records, student performance data, and so no. Much of it is required by law to be recorded, in fact.

Internal to your own organization, data is created whenever an action is taken. Or not taken.

Think of data as a natural resource that exists, that can be extracted, and that can be converted into power—the power of information and intelligence. 

The first step is unearthing the data. Plugging into existing data sources and API, getting internal systems to talk to each other, and making sure all relevant information is first getting captured, stored and managed with efficiency and interoperability.

The next step (one that is often overlooked) is converting raw resources into refined material. We call this step “performance analytics.” This is how and when we make sense of the data we’re collecting—analyzing performance, not just recording it. For the next step is stunted if we don’t first understand what the data is trying to tell us.

Step three is data visualization. It’s one thing to analyze data, and quite another to understand it in a way that’s intuitive to anyone looking at it. Visualization tools, such as graphics, charts, diagrams and infographics are critical to looking at the big picture, understanding the nuance of the smaller pictures that make up the big picture, and making informed decisions about how to either course correct or double down on what’s working.

Going back to the weather metaphor, think about your nightly newscast or your favorite weather tracking app. First, a data scientist (namely, the meteorologist and/or meteorology software) is gathering information on past events. Next, those inputs are modeled to forecast scenarios based on likelihoods as to what will happen next. Lastly, that information is presented graphically and pictorially so we non-meteorologists can easily understand what’s being predicted and devise our course of action. We dress accordingly, we travel safely, we plan excursions, etc. Finally, what actually occurred in that future state gets recorded as a past event, to further feed the models and to make better prognostications going forward.

If you’re not doing the same with your own data and data that is publicly available, you truly are just talking about your organizational weather and not doing anything about it.

If You Treasure It, Measure It

To get started, or to advance your organization’s own performance analysis, follow a similar path to what you might in setting up your own personal weather app or choosing which weather report to listen to:

  1. Determine what you truly treasure. You can’t effectively monitor everything, and in fact, you shouldn’t. Just as you wouldn’t want to keep tabs on every weather event in the entire world, you must prioritize what matters most to your organization. For schools and districts, this might be things like student achievement data, educational outcomes, or student enrollment trends. For cities and municipalities, it might be things like budget projections, capital allocations, and peer wage and benefit comparisons.
  2. Define how, what and when you will measure. Data and performance metrics can be measured at a very granular level or at scale. Often, we want to overlay both—the granular against the big picture. How is our city performing against our peers, and are specific departments contributing to or impeding that performance?, for example. Or schools may want to examine data and trends at the district level, the building level, the classroom or teacher level…all the way down to the individual student level. Your measurement tools should be robust and nimble enough to do both at the same time, and with only a few clicks of a mouse.
  3. Paint the picture that conveys 1,000 words. We’ve heard it from municipal administrators and educators alike for years: it has to be easy; it has to be intuitive. Data visualization is paramount to simplifying complexity, creating clarity around what’s already happened as well as what is likely to happen in the future, and conveying meaning to publics and stakeholders that are predominantly laypersons. Easy-to-understand graphics will tell a story in a way that a spreadsheet or numbers across X and Y axes cannot.
  4. Record. Report. Respond. Finally, take a tip from our meteorologist friends who have been measuring what we’ve been treasuring for decades. Be sure to record all meaningful data, and tap into any relevant public resource at your avail. Reporting that data out to your constituents fosters trust and builds community, so leverage your systems to make data easy to understand and publicly available. Finally, create clarity about how your organization will respond to the data you’re collecting, analyzing and sharing. Without taking steps to measure what you treasure, you can’t possibly construct a reliable plan for what you will change or what you will reinvest in.

Just as you have come to prefer a given weather app, or have gravitated toward a favorite television meteorologist, all of this transparency and reporting serves to build trust. As school districts and municipalities, isn’t this what we’re trying to achieve with our constituents—greater trust and stronger communities?

Do More with Less

Ben Franklin once said, “Dost thou love life? Then do not squander time, for that is the stuff life is made of.” We know everyone’s being asked to do more with less these days. More tasks, more work, more reporting…all with less time, less budget and less staff.

By focusing your data analytics on what you truly treasure, you will not only be measuring what’s critical, but you will be creating strategic focus around where you’re spending your time and energy as an organization. Technology allows us to do more, see more, understand more and effect greater change…all in less time, expending fewer human resources, and often to significant financial savings.

Again, it may very well be that we’re powerless to change the weather, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t doing anything about it. Take that same approach we apply to daily climate fluctuations and apply it to your most critical performance metrics. In doing so, you will be well armed to weather storms, make accurate forecasts, and bask in fair weather that comes as a natural consequence of understanding where you’ve been and where you’re going in the future.

Do that, and you’ll have more time left over to complain about the actual weather!

Mike Geers is Client Partnership Manager with Munetrix, a Michigan-based data analytics and management firm serving school districts and municipalities across the country. He can be reached at mike@munetrix.com.

If you or someone you know is interested in learning about ho performance analytics and data visualization can help you measure what you treasure, click the appropriate button below:

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