Teaching Analytics to NYC Employees: Analytics for Managers

This blog post is part of a series of posts I’m doing outlining the experiences I’ve had in a year of teaching analytics classes to NYC employees. For more information on the courses I teach, see the Github repository of course outlines and other important information as well as the other posts in this series.

I was recently asked on Twitter about my approach to teaching open data and analytics to NYC employees and I boiled it down to this:

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In all my classes, I don’t dictate how students should do analysis. They know their job and the needs of their office far better than I do. I facilitate a discussion where I share my experiences and insights, enabling them to become the data-driven decision makers they want to be.

No class represents this more than Data Analytics for Managers. Based on a class I co-taught on data analytics for the New York City Department of Citywide Administrative Services Management Academy, this class is a survey of techniques and tools used in data analysis. I touch on a little of everything, from statistics, to information visualization design, open data, and the analytics process. While we get into a data exercise using open data (looking at noise complaints across the city), the value in the course isn’t the Excel tutorial, it’s in the discussions I facilitate around analytics.

In these discussions, they’ve asked about how to hire analysts (emphasize curiosity and friendliness over skill and experience), the reliability of open data (go to the source or to trusted 3rd parties), how to get data from their co-workers (donuts and some kind words work wonders), and how to encourage their supervisors to understand their analysis (give them something tangible that meets and an actual need they have). The participants in these discussions are able to express their accomplishments, curiosities, worries, and frustrations about data and analytics in their offices. They find co-workers from different agencies with different responsibilities having the same challenges to collect, access, analyze, and communicate the data necessary to make reliable decisions. We work together to explore potential solutions based on the wealth of experience in the room, and bring people out of their acknowledged fear of data and Excel intimidation to help them feel comfortable using data to answer important operational questions.

That’s not to say we don’t cover Excel. As the primary analytical tool used in the city (and most everywhere else), I show them the basics including basic tips and tricks, pivot tables, charts, and formulas. They learn basic functions for cleaning text and working with dates. Recently, I’ve begun adding examples of great analytics work being done in New York City and around the country, including the Risk Based Inspection System created by the NYC Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics, Cincinnati’s Blight Prevention Model, and the New Orleans smoke alarm targeted outreach program. I also show them some of the great work being done with open data outside city government, including the work of the Voter Information Project, IQuantNY’s analysis of parking tickets that identified two fire hydrants netting NYC $55,000 a year in fines, and Chris Whong’s A Day in the Life of a NYC Taxi, as well as the transit and other applications that are built on open data. In these examples, I hope they find inspiration as well as inviting them to think through the challenges that digital open data, including concerns about privacy, confidentiality, and security.

Moving forward, I want to further describe what it means to be “data driven” following the work of Carl Anderson in his book “Creating a Data-Driven Organization.” I think there’s an opportunity to discuss how we can apply these ideas to local government. There is a paradigm shift going on in local government (and arguably government at all levels) towards a model of providing flexible and responsive services. The students who come through my class are going to be the ones to help realize this new reality for governing in the 21st century and I’m glad to be helping support them with relevant and interesting training to help them in their task.

Cover photo credit Flickr user Sunset Noir, licensed under terms CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. No modifications made to image.

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