University of Illinois Urbana‑Champaign

A Message From IECAM's Project Director

Head shot of Dawn Thomas, IECAM project director (she is wearing a purple sweater and smiling)

Data are found everywhere—Amazon, Etsy, our medical records, and bank statements. We know data are found at the U.S. Census Bureau. We know data are a part of the ongoing COVID-19 work. But are we truly aware of the part that data play in our everyday lives?

Recently, I had a conversation in which I was challenged to consider such a question. What startled me out of any complacency I might have been harboring was the fact that the answer had nothing to do with what people often think of as data (numbers).

Let me explain. When I’m looking for a good book to read, I tend to go to Goodreads to see how others are responding to books in which I may be interested. One of the first things I look at is the star rating. Are there 3 stars? If so, I’m moving on. Are there 5 stars? If there are, then I will dig a little deeper into the book by reading the reviews, for it is in the reviews that we find what the data really means.

A book publisher will give us all sorts of data (the basic plotline of the book, other reads by that same author) and other related information. But I want to see what the book meant to an individual. Sometimes all the review says is how much they liked (or disliked) the book. And sometimes the review will tell a story about how the individual had found the perfect gift for their family member or friend. There are a few numbers or percentages in the reviews, but they include a depth of wonderful information to help me decide on the book. It’s information that brings a little more meaning to the numbers, percentages, and ratings.

Here’s another example: I am sure that all of us have had times where we received the results of a medical test and have questioned what all those numbers and seemingly long, nonsensical words mean. Those numbers on that personal medical chart are full of meaning! A low score or, for that matter, a high score may mean long treatments, a change of lifestyle or diet, or, at the very least, a moment of reflection. Those types of data are profound and momentous in some cases.

My point? Data are not always simply numbers on a far-off chart or a geocoded point on a map. Data can be personal and full of meaning.

So, what other questions can we ask that might help us better understand the world of data as well as the part it plays in our lives?

  1. Why should I care about data? When I see the numbers and/or percentages relevant to my program, my hometown, or the families I may serve, what do they mean? Is it important that I have investment in that information and data?
  2. What do those data have to do with me? If data are discussed for a small town in southern Illinois, why might it be important for a person living in the city of Chicago? When I learn about families in a Chicago Community Area, what does it matter to me if I’m in central Illinois?
  3. How can I respond? Once I recognize my own investment toward the data and the implications of those data, how should I respond? To what am I responding? Am I making decisions based on those data? How do I know I’m interpreting the data accurately?

These are questions IECAM is hoping to answer this year. In addition, we hope to be able to pose more questions for you to answer. How can data become more meaningful to me? And how can I use data to make my work and my life more meaningful?

Dawn Thomas, Project Director