Why you—yes, you—should learn about data

Why you—yes, you—should learn about data

Most New Zealanders live near the sea, so there’s a widely held view that everyone should learn to swim. Yet most New Zealanders live in even closer proximity to data, and relatively few know how to navigate it safely, to harness its power or to enjoy its benefits. That needs to change.

Illustration of person swimming in between the curved lines of a graph, depicting the need for individuals to immerse themselves in data.

You’ve almost certainly heard about Facebook users’ information being harvested by a researcher, sold to Cambridge Analytica, and used for purposes such as aiding the Trump Presidential Campaign. You might be outraged by this and ask ‘who is doing something about this?’ Facebook is tightening its privacy policies and governments should consider changing their privacy regulations (the European Union was doing that even before this incident became public).

But someone else should also be doing something, and that someone is you.

You may be thinking, data is only relevant for math and stats majors, or it’s our Government’s problem, not yours. But all of us, regardless of our field of study or level of power, should be seeking greater exposure to data-related content.

You need to know more about your data and what you’re sharing in order to make good decisions when agreeing to the terms of service for the apps and websites you use. If recent events have made you wonder what companies such as Google and Facebook know about you, The Guardian’s article outlining what personal data these large tech giants are collecting is a good place to start.

Understanding data can also create career opportunities and enable you to thrive in an increasingly digital and data-driven economy. It enables you to be a good citizen, and to hold politicians and public servants accountable.   You have access to important data about New Zealand through Statistics New Zealand’s online web tool. Using their database, you can view and download a range of information, such as the most common causes of injuries, how many people in Wellington live in over-crowded housing, rates of pay according to age, gender, and ethnicity and much more—use this to explore data that is of interest to you.

Today nearly every discipline makes use of data, so look for opportunities to learn about it in a context that’s relevant to you. Some types and sources of data may seem challenging to understand at first, but if you run into one of those, find people who will explain it to you in a way you can understand. Many people have had negative experiences with quantitative topics in school, but don’t let that put you off. If someone explains something in Greek, ask for an explanation in plain English or an example of how the concept applies to you.

Understanding data opens doors. It enables you to understand things that interest you more completely, and provides you with career options that will be in high-demand for the foreseeable future. Like you, people currently working in organisations and in government are still learning about data, such as trying to understand the right balance between people’s privacy and the benefits derived from data, including convenience and the ability to target services more precisely. What can be done with data is constantly evolving, so there are always new possibilities for its future applications, which you can be a part of.

So the next time you see a chart, graph, or table of numbers, don’t turn away—dive in.

Dr Mary-Ellen Gordon is a Senior Lecturer at the School of Information Management and conducts research into how private, public and non-profit organisations use data and how it affects their performance, and how to improve data capabilities.

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