Building Empathy with Data

I recently taught several classes with managers from the NYC Administration for Children’s Services. These folks are near and dear to my heart. Coming from a social sciences background and having experience as a social worker, I have sympathy for their hard and often thankless work.

I also appreciate the unique perspective those in the social sciences and social services bring to the debate about data and how to be data driven, which was on display during both sessions of my Data Analytics for Managers class. In my opinion, no one better understands this quote:

Not everything that can be counted counts and not everything that counts can be counted.

– William Bruce Cameron

Dealing with people every day, particularly people in crisis, puts into perspective both the power and the limitations of data. How can I convey in numbers the stories of the addicts I met in my time as a drug and alcohol counselor? How can you easily tell the story of the almost 8,500 children in NYC’s foster care system? There is so much nuance to each of their stories and experiences.

But something important happens when you get the counting right, we can begin to enter into the lives of others in ways we can’t otherwise. I can’t fully imagine what it’s like to be a young man of color, but knowing one in three black males will go to prison at some point during their lifetimes or that one in three women have experienced contact sexual violence in their lifetime, I begin to understand lives that are very different from my own. I can begin to have greater empathy for what it means to be a Black man or a women in our predominantly white, male society. While these stories can’t be fully conveyed in numbers, the numbers are a gateway to understanding, a means by which to begin putting the personal stories of thousands of people into context.

So if we want a measure of “good” analysis, maybe it’s analysis that doesn’t just tell a story (as all analysis should), but tells a story that makes people more aware and understanding not just of the facts, but the significance of those facts to those who live out the facts in their everyday lives. It’s analysis that allows us to move into the experience of others, cultivating empathy to do what’s right and impactful for everyone, especially the most vulnerable.

Cover image by Flickr user Crystal Coleman, license CC BY-NC 2.0

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