Monday, February 11, 2013

Data dashboards, critical thinking, and more

Two interesting and relevant articles are in this morning's New York Times. First, it appears that Police Commissioner Ray Kelly receives a weekly data dashboard, in his case a lengthy document that provides updated statistical information. Data dashboards, or regular statistical updates, are an extremely useful management tool, one that senior executives can use to get a point in time sense of what is happening in an agency, department, or unit. (Even the Times used "snapshot" in the headline.) Unusually, Mr. Kelly's data dashboard appears to include some interpretations:
For example, the report, obtained by The New York Times, indicated that the department had created a database to better track the reliability of confidential informants offering information. It told Mr. Kelly that in the previous week, no officer had been shot, committed suicide or shot a dog, but that one suspect had been shot. It gave details on the most recent escaped prisoner, and highlighted various crime trends.
I couldn't find the data dashboard itself on the NYPD website, and the Times article did not link to it. The data dashboard appears to include updates to at least some of the many useful statistics the NYPD makes available, including annual firearms discharge reports, weekly COMPSTAT files, and stop and frisk reports.
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The other article is a column by Paul Krugman called "The Ignorance Caucus." It's a tenet of this blog that information is critical to understanding what is happening in our world. We should think critically about what information is in front of us, remembering that there will always be something that we don't know, but some information is better than none. Those principles are being lost in our politics:
For these days his party dislikes the whole idea of applying critical thinking and evidence to policy questions. And no, that’s not a caricature: Last year the Texas G.O.P. explicitly condemned efforts to teach “critical thinking skills,” because, it said, such efforts “have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.”
And such is the influence of what we might call the ignorance caucus that even when giving a speech intended to demonstrate his openness to new ideas, Mr. Cantor felt obliged to give that caucus a shout-out, calling for a complete end to federal funding of social science research. Because it’s surely a waste of money seeking to understand the society we’re trying to change. . . .
Do actions like this have important effects? Well, consider the agonized discussions of gun policy that followed the Newtown massacre. It would be helpful to these discussions if we had a good grasp of the facts about firearms and violence. But we don’t, because back in the 1990s conservative politicians, acting on behalf of the National Rifle Association, bullied federal agencies into ceasing just about all research into the issue. Willful ignorance matters.
It makes for some depressing reading. 


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