What a Journalist Who Knew Nothing About Data Last Year Thinks about Data Now


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Last year, data was a foreign concept to me. This year, I’m still no expert, but the role it plays in my life - or my recognition of the role it plays in my life, has changed significantly. Like for most people who aren’t “left brained” or don’t work with data on a regular basis, data was almost like a bad word to me. I didn’t get it, I didn’t want to get it, and truth be told, I never even thought about it. When I began working at Salt, my greatest fear was being able to do my job in relation to data, because how can I do my job, no matter how creative, if I don’t understand the point?

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After looking at data and for data almost every day for the last 10 or so months, I’ve realized that it’s not that big or scary. Data is just data. It’s a collection of information. Ten months ago I, presumably, understood the meaning of the words “information” and “collection,” right? What I didn’t put together then though, was that data is just that, a collection of information. Our DNA is data, our address is part of a set of data, even our shopping list is data. Certainly, it gets more complicated than that, but I believe that understanding those basics is the key to getting to the more difficult stuff. After my last post about finding data everywhere, this point may sound redundant, but data is all around us.

As a little experiment, I decided to ask a few people who don’t “do data” daily, how they would define the word. My 10 year old niece (this is a wiser answer than I would have given last year):

“information, facts”

A fellow photojournalist:

“Collection of information used to make conclusions”

A pharmacist friend:

“Data to me means numbers and percentages and stuff like that. And charts and things that smart people say to prove a point, like “the data backs up our theory.”

A friend who works in PR:

“The very first word that comes to mind for some reason is “numbers,” even though I know it doesn’t have to be. Then closely followed by “tech.” Thirdly followed by Chandler Bing and data statistical reconfiguration hahahahahaha! But if I go the definition route, the first thought that pops into my head is facts and research to back up and prove various facts and information.”

Most of these answers sound not too far off from how I described data.

“Numbers, technology, smart people, charts.”

It was always very vague, but ultimately, that is exactly what data is, and I’ve learned to recognize that without making more of it than it is.