Sometimes, articles get done

Back in 2017, I gave a talk in which I spoke of “data moves.” These are things we do to data in order to analyze data. They’re all pretty obvious, though some are more cognitively demanding than others. They range from things like filtering (i.e., looking at a subset of the data) to joining (making a relationship between two datasets). The bee in my bonnet was that it seemed to me that in many cases, instructors might think that these should not be taught because they are not part of the curriculum—either because they are too simple and obvious or too complex and beyond-the-scope. I claimed (and still claim) that they’re important and that we should pay attention to them, acknowledge them when they come up, and occasionally even name them to students and reflect explicitly on how useful they are.

Of course there’s a great deal more to say. And because of that I wrote, with my co-PI’s, an actual, academic, peer-reviewed article—a “position paper”; this is not research—describing data moves. Any of you familiar with the vagaries of academic publishing know what a winding road that can be. But at last, here it is:

Erickson, T., Wilkerson, M., Finzer, W., & Reichsman, F. (2019). Data Moves. Technology Innovations in Statistics Education, 12(1). Retrieved from https://escholarship.org/uc/item/0mg8m7g6.

Then, in the same week, a guest blog post by Bill Finzer and me got published. Or dropped, or whatever. It’s about using CODAP to introduce some data science concepts. It even includes figures that are dynamic and interactive. Check out the post, but stay for the whole blog, it’s pretty interesting:

https://teachdatascience.com/codap/

Whew.

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When research questions don’t make sense: use claims!

I need to write up this Very Small Thought in order to get it off my to-do list. The basic thesis is: when we ask students to do rich, open-ended projects, we often insist that they write “research questions.” Sometimes this is a terrible idea.

Don’t get me wrong: asking students to come up with research questions can be important. Many frameworks for how science works have “formulate a research question” as an early step. Furthermore, when you grow up, some grant proposal RFPs insist that you specify your research questions.

Continue reading When research questions don’t make sense: use claims!

Data Moves with CO2

The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is rising, and we have good data on that from, among other sources, atmospheric measurements that have been taken near the summit of Mauna Loa, in Hawaii, for decades.

Here is a link to monthly data through September 2018, as a CODAP document. There’s a clear upward trend.

CO2 concentration (mole fraction, parts per million) as a function of time, here represented as a “decimal year.”

Each of the 726 dots in the graph represents the average value for one month of data.

What do we have to do—what data moves can we make—to make better sense of the data? One thing that any beginning stats person might do is to fit a line to the data. I won’t do that here, but you can imagine what happens: the data curve upward, so the line is a poor model, but the positive slope of the line (about 1.5, which is in ppm per year) is a useful average rate of increase over the interval we’re looking at. You could consider fitting a curve, or a sequence of line segments, but we won’t do that either.

Instead, let’s point out that the swath of points is wide. There are lots of overlapping points. We should zoom in and see if there is a pattern.

Continue reading Data Moves with CO2

Fidelity versus Clarity

Thinking about yesterday’s post, I was struck with an idea that may be obvious to many readers, and has doubtless been well-explored, but it was new to me (or I had forgotten it) so here I go, writing to help me think and remember:

The post touched on the notion that communication is an important part of data science, and that simplicity aids in communication. Furthermore, simplification is part of modelmaking.

That is, we look at unruly data with a purpose: to understand some phenomenon or to answer a question. And often, the next step is to communicate that understanding or answer to a client, be it the person who is paying us or just ourselves. “Communicating the understanding” means, essentially, encapsulating what we have found out so that we don’t have to go through the entire process again.

nhanes 800 means
Mean height by sex and age; 800 cases aged 5–19. NHANES, 2003.

So we might boil the data down and make a really cool, elegant visualization. We hold onto that graphic, and carry it with us mentally in order to understand the underlying phenomenon, for example, that graph of mean height by sex and age in order to have an internal idea—a model—for sex differences in human growth.

But every model leaves something out. In this case, we don’t see the spread in heights at each age, and we don’t see the overlap between females and males. So we could go further, and include more data in the graph, but eventually we would get a graph that was so unwieldy that we couldn’t use it to maintain that same ease of understanding. It would require more study every time we needed it. Of course, the appropriate level of detail depends on the context, the stakes, and the audience.

So there’s a tradeoff. As we make our analysis more complex, it becomes more faithful to the original data and to the world, but it also becomes harder to understand.

Which suggests this graphic:

Graphic showing that as complexity increases, clarity goes down, but fidelity goes up
The data science design tradeoff

Continue reading Fidelity versus Clarity

Data Moves and Simplification

or, What I should have emphasized more at NCTM

I’m just back from NCTM 2018 in Washington DC where I gave a brief workshop that introduced ideas in data science education and the use of CODAP to a very nice group in a room that—well, NCTM and the Marriott Marquis were doing their best, but we really need a different way of doing technology at these big conferences.

Anyway: at the end of a fairly wide-ranging presentation in which my main goal was for participants to get their hands dirty—get into the data, get a feel for the tools, have data science on their radar—it was inevitable that I would feel:

  • that I talked too much; and
  • that there were important things I should have said.

Sigh. Let’s address the latter. Here is a take-away I wish I had set up better:

In data science, things are often too complicated. So one step is to simplify things; and some data moves, by their nature, simplify.

Complication is related to being awash in data (see this post…); it can come from the sheer quantity of data as well as things like being multivariate or otherwise just containing a lot of stuff we’re not interested in right now.

To cut through that complication, we often filter or summarize, and to do those, we often group. To give some examples, I will look again at the data that appeared in the cards metaphor post, but with a different slant.

Here we go: NHANES data on height, age, and sex. At the end of the process, we will see this graph:

nhanes 800 means
Mean height by sex and age; 800 cases aged 5–19. NHANES, 2003.

And the graph tells a compelling story: boys and girls are roughly the same height—OK, girls are a little taller at ages 10–12—but starting at about age 13, girls’ heights level off, while the boys continue growing for about two more years.

We arrived at this after a bunch of analysis. But how did we start?

Continue reading Data Moves and Simplification

Data Moves: the cards metaphor

In the Data Science Games project, we started talking, early, about what we called data moves. We weren’t quite sure what they were exactly, but we recognized some when we did them.

In CODAP, for example (like in Fathom), there is this thing we learn to do where you select points in one graph and, since when you select data in CODAP, the data are selected everywhere, the same points are selected in all other graphs—and you can see patterns that were otherwise hidden.

You can use that same selection idea to hide the selected or unselected points, thereby filtering the data that you’re seeing. Anyway, that felt like a data move, a tool in our data toolbox. We could imagine pointing them out to students as a frequently-useful action to take.

I’ve mentioned the idea in a couple of posts because it seemed to me that data moves were characteristic of data science, or at least the proto-data-science that we have been trying to do: we use data moves to make sense of rich data where things can get confusing; we use data moves to help when we are awash in data. In traditional intro stats, you don’t need data moves because you generally are given exactly the data you need.

Continue reading Data Moves: the cards metaphor

Trees. And. Diagnosis. (Live!)

I’ve been invited to give a webinar about our work on trees; it will include material from the previous two posts.

Here’s the Eventbrite link. Get your free ticket!

Here’s the blurb:

Data, Decisions, and Trees

We often say that we want to make decisions “based on data.” What does that really mean? We’ll look at a simple approach to data-based decisionmaking using a representation we might not use every day: the tree. In this webinar, you’ll use data to make trees, and then use the trees to diagnose diseases.

On the surface, trees are very simple. But for some reason — perhaps because we’re less familiar with using trees — people (and by that we mean us) have more trouble than we expect. Anticipate having a couple of “wait a second, let me think about this!” moments.