Friday, August 04, 2006

Data Overload. Answers underwhelming?

A while ago I had a request from some media initiative I'd signed up for, to help with some research.

Keen to help, I clicked the link and even got cracking, but when I saw the thing was scores of pages long I paused, and then when it transpired they were asking pretty deep rooted financial stuff about our business I stopped dead, not even midway through.

At least this thing allowed one to have a mooch forward to see what you were letting yourself in for, and even store entries 'to date' (which strikes a chord having just lost a mulit-page online application that did neither when my browser hung - the secret is just to whack in x's and nonsense numbers until the end (don't hit submit!) and capture the headings on a Word .doc to craft at leisure, and then cut and paste when you're ready). But it was still just too much, and I dropped it.

But it seems they knew where I lived, and did not want take 'waaaay too hard' as an answer, because I have just been reminded:

"We are now heading towards the end of our annual collection of data. Your input would be greatly appreciated to help provide an overview of the whole sector, and provide results that are useful to [the commissioners]."

As it seemed only polite, I was moved to write to explain why we are not participating further in this survey rather than just not responding:

"We are and have been keen to help and indeed support any initiative(s) of this nature, as they can be more than beneficial to our area and possibly our own interests. We in fact have benefited from support in the past.

However, we are finding ourselves bombarded with such requests, and frankly many are too extensive, intrusive or indeed too regular to cope with unless they are a requirement of a grant process (and even then I have had cause to request a qualitative person-based interview rather than a form-based one). I also have a real problem with such structured questionnaires as they often do not allow for context.

This one fell under the first two as far as we are concerned. I did try, but gave up when I saw where it was going (which at least it did. Some refuse to allow you to proceed unless you fill things fully and in a way designed to suit the acquisition system)."

No kidding. I get these requests all the time. And some on a very regular basis. Plus reminders. They can get very hurt that you don't feel like filling in their form, their way.

What really gets me is that few, if any of these forms have been structured in a way that I felt I was contributing meaningfully, or were trying to help me help them. So much needs context or an explanation. And too often saying 'don't know', or 'none of the above' or 'more than one' is rarely an option. Nothing gets me offside more than a form telling me I have not filled it in correctly before allowing me to move on, especially when it doesn't allow me to answer correctly (it is way worse when it is something serious, or involving money, when you have to put your name to it at the end). There is seldom a 'gave up becuase this is a stupid form' option.

So I have to question this research technique, how much it all costs and how meaningful the results ever can be. But I'm sure it all makes for lovely reports that no one will read.

Ok, so I'm a hypocrite. Now what?

Here's an interesting piece - Welcoming Homer the tree-hugger - sent to the BBC Green Room by an American writer.

Considering the provenance it is unsurprisingly funny, intelligent and irreverent.


Despite enjoying every word, and agreeing with it all, by the end I was not terribly sure what more I could do.

Yes, 'we' need to cooperate. And certainly those on his list need to be brought on board. But join what?

How I wish I had the cachet of writing something like the Simpsons behind me to get published in such a major medium and simply say 'please join and use it. It's free, it's fun and may make a small difference'.

I guess I'll try. But will it get read in some niche area by anyone other than a bunch of hypocrites like me who will immediately discuss and criticise without even giving it a go?

We have had welcome support for form many areas. But what has amazed me is how few we can trace who have actually signed up and used it. Our best hope are those who just like the idea and want to play.

Back to the shed.

The Shirty Dozen

BBC's Panorama is one of the few true, old school investigative news programmes around these days, so when I came across an invitation to submit my blog (well, it was to anyone, so I hope they have a lot of staff) I thought 'Why not?'

So I composed the following, and it can't hurt to have it logged here:

The environment is BIG these days. There are lives at stake: a current and future planetful, by some accounts. There is also good, and bad, money to be made taking advantage of its problems. I have a few profound views that shape my blog’s content... My ‘Shirty’ Dozen:

1) The facts and/or causes of climate change/global warming are too often distracting, or used as such. What really matters is that there is no sense in wasting anything unnecessarily.

2) People are inevitably polluters. With a growing global population, all we’re really doing is buying time... and still not very well. But it’s still worth trying!

3) Hence any well considered, positive/proactive initiative is better than nothing, well worth supporting and applauding. But there always need to be SWOT analyses and ROI assessments built-in... with consequential contingencies.

4) Little that is green can be viewed productively only in black and white.

5) There is still waaay too much remote, high-level talk, and not enough individual action.

6) Where there is action, the demands of PROCESS too often hijack the aims behind the RESULT, making change much more difficult to apply.

7) Most everyday folk would like to do something, but few have the time or resources to find out or sift through everything out there (and often contradictory), much less engage. They must be reached on terms they can cope with, and in ways they can respond to.

8) The public are often poorly served by those - authority, activist and even the media - with what can look like pretty short-sighted, selfish or self-promoting agendas. Inefficiencies and hypocrisies need to be exposed and called into account

9) The ‘Green Elite’ can too often contribute to the problem rather than helping with the solution.

10) Green need not always be good, or be above question. If it doesn't make sense to me, it may not to others. So it's always worth asking why.

11) Positive results need to be promoted, and rewards and incentives favoured over nagging, scare tactics or threats.

12) It is possible to be an idealist. The tricky part is keeping pragmatic and practical along with it.

Enough Talk

It's a painful process, weaning myself of all this. I enjoy it. But it is an addiction, and like all such, can prove a negative infleunce on one's day.

But I was helped by yet another consumption of time and energy, again courtesy of the excellent Grist.

They had inspired a debate that was essentially about how best to deal with communications - Self-interest is the answer - and when words like 'cool' and 'brand are bandied about, it gets my attention. Having read all the comments I was ready to pitch in. But then... how much would I consume today on trying to write a well argued piece? And what, really, would it acheive?

Nah. Better to stay with trying to do something.

Not that it stopped my having a small input on someone else advocating doing something, this time by tapping into Geothermal.

I guess I just feel more comfortable with the notion of reducing waste rather than finding new ways of making and expending energy to make more.

The consequences seem less fraught with contradictions.