Thinking about distractions

Having spent most of yesterday and half of Sunday thinking about, preparing for, and watching Hurricane Sandy pass through, it seems like a good time to report on this column from the Harvard Business Review Blog, "Three Ways to Think Deeply at Work." The author, David Rock, of the NeuroLeadership Institute, conducts research into the role of the unconscious mind in solving problems.

Rock identifies three techniques to help you think more deeply. These should help whether you work in an office or from home. Here they are:
  • Distraction: Experimental work shows that a brief distraction can help you solve a complex problem, one that is too big for the conscious mind to solve. (The experiment involved picking which car, each with 12 attributes, is the better buy.) The group given a brief distraction did better than the groups told to solve the problem immediately and those told to keep working at it. But keep the distraction short. Rock says it works because
stepping away from a problem and then coming back to it gives you a fresh perspective. The surprising part is how fast this effect kicked in — the third group only had two minutes of distraction time for their non-conscious to kick in. . . something  . . .  accessible to all of us every day, in many small ways.
  • Plan for time to do the tasks that require deep thinking, and time for the distractions. Here's what Rock suggests:
* Think about one question/idea that needs insight and keep this thought in your subconscious mind.
* Clear your conscious mind by using this two-step system: move your thought(s) from your mind to a list and then clear your list when you have a short break (if your meeting is canceled, for instance, or your flight is delayed).
* Plan your week and month by listing three priorities you would like to accomplish.
* Make certain you have at least four consecutive, uninterrupted hours a day dedicated to the three priorities you identified.
  • Understand that your mind can manage only so much at once. So, in addition, Rock recommends scheduling the tasks that require the most attention when your mind is fresh and alert, and "grouping ideas into chunks whenever you have too much information."
I'll admit I'm trying some of these. Do they work for you? Let me know.


Hurricanes since 1851

The screenshot above is a projection (notice the South Pole center) showing hurricanes since 1851. North America is to the top right, just to the left of the firework of hurricane paths. The graphic was produced by John Nelson on UXBlog. The brighter colors are the more intense storms.

Here's what else Nelson says:
A couple of things stood out to me about this data...

1) Structure.

Hurricanes clearly abhor the equator and fling themselves away from the warm waters of their birth as quickly as they can. . . . The void circling the image is the equator.  Hurricanes can never ever cross it.

2) Detection.

Detection has skyrocketed since satellite technology but mostly since we started logging storms in the eastern hemisphere.  Also the proportionality of storm severity looks to be getting more consistent year to year with the benefit of more data.
You can see an animated version on the Guardian data blog, here.


Tracking Sandy

If you're interested, that's a screen shot of the predicted path as of this morning of Hurricane Sandy. For various reasons meteorologists are getting better and better at predicting the paths of storms, though not the intensity at any one time. The possibility that Sandy may come into contact with a more typical North American weather system means that a big hybrid system may develop.
And, as Adam Sobel explains on Climate Central, that would result in an unpredictable storm.
As Sandy moves northward, it will move over cooler water. If this were all that were happening, Sandy would weaken, as tropical cyclones moving toward a pole typically do. At the same time, though, Sandy will come close enough to the upper trough now over the U.S. to interact with that trough in something like the way that an extratropical surface low normally would  . . .
When this happens, they will form a hybrid storm system with some tropical and some extratropical properties. Some energy will still come from the ocean surface, but some will now come from the pole-to-equator temperature contrast. This new energy source will enable Sandy to maintain its intensity, or maybe even increase it.
This process is called “extratropical transition.” It poses a lot of problems for forecasters. In the first place, the computer models aren’t that great at predicting exactly when it will happen. 
So keep an eye on the storm. You can do it easily through ESRI's social storm tracker:


Bayonets, horses, and . . . . ships

Here, in case you missed it, is a link to an interesting pair of charts, interactive of course, from the Guardian. (That's a screenshot above; you'll have to click on the link to actually interact with it.) As you can see, the US Navy had the most ships in action during . . . World War II.

We have 11 carriers now, and no longer have any screw sloops, though in 1886 we had 14 of them. It's not the number of ships that's important, it's the kinds and how nimble we are in using them. 

Image from Simon Rogers via datamarket.com

"The Non Nonprofit" by Steve Rothschild

A friend recommended "The Non Nonprofit" by Steve Rothschild and I'm glad he did, because the book takes a completely different approach to the problem of paying for social services from anything else I have read. The book is organized around seven principles, with an additional chapter about how important it is to put the principles into practice together.

Rothschild is a former executive at General Mills who went on to use his business experience, acumen, and connections to form a nonprofit, Twin Cities RISE!, whose purpose is to reduce concentrated poverty. Notice the use of the word purpose where you might expect to see mission. Organizations need both, Rothschild explains. Purpose guides programming, reinforces a long-term perspective, and encourages flexibility and innovation. Mission, on the other hand, is concrete. It sets out what the organization does (and does not) do; it puts the purpose into operation. Rothschild's first principle? "Have a clear and appropriate purpose."

The other principles are worth bearing in mind also - measure what counts, be market driven, create mutual accountability, support personal empowerment, and be learning driven. All good things, and Rothschild's take on them, particularly the mutual accountability and personal empowerment sections, are worth reading. Alert readers will have notice that so far I have mentioned only six principles.

The seventh is "Create Economic Value from Social Benefit." In this chapter, Rothschild argues that since every improvement in social good creates social value it is up to nonprofits to quantify who is receiving the value and what it is worth. As he puts it, our current approach to financing social service work "doesn't make sense." Why not? We have big problems, but pay small organizations to deal with them. The problems are systemic, but we spend money in one to two year cycles. Nonprofits focused on these issues don't have access to the long-term capital that for-profits do.

Rothschild outlines two alternative approaches to what he calls the "no financial return expected" approach - the one that government and philanthropic funders use now. These approaches go beyond performance based contracting as it is practiced now. Both depend on calculating a firm and credible return on investment.

I have discussed one of the alternatives, social impact bonds, here (as well as its cousin health impact bonds, here.) Rothschild's alternative, and he appears to have invented the concept (and founded an organization that worked for passage of a Minnesota law to try it out), is the Human Capital performance bond. One explanation of Human Capital Bonds is:
Human Capital Performance Bonds . . . are State AA "annual appropriation" bonds that fund high-performing human services.
The bonds pay market rates, and might be bought by private investors, financial institutions, or social investors. As Rothschild puts it:
The basic mechanism of the [human capital bond] is simple: if the social outcomes that a nonprofit generates create economic value that is greater than the state's cost of borrowing the funds, then the state will have both a social and economic incentive to sell the bonds.
Here's a diagram of how it works:

Human Capital bonds have yet to come into existence, even in Minnesota, and there are lots of questions remaining to be answered. For one interesting take, see this article.


Using Outcome Measures

While some sectors of the not-for-profit world have been using outcome measures for many years, others providers are still doubtful about the benefits and costs of using them. What are outcome measures? Outcome measures are simply standards that a program's staff sets to determine whether the program is accomplishing what it exists to accomplish.

So what is an outcome? It's a benefit or change for participating individuals or populations during or after the program's activities. For a foster care program, an outcome might be reducing length of stay in placement. For an HIV prevention program, it might be reducing the number of new infections. (Note: While these are simple statements, developing and calculating the outcomes should be a considered process. That will be the subject of a later post.)

The advantages of using carefully thought through outcome measures are many. For example, you can use them with outsiders in some of the follow ways.
  • Once you have outcome measures, you can state clearly what you have accomplished. For example, Twin Cities RISE, a program designed to provide employers with skilled workers - mostly men from communities of color -  states on its website that people who complete its programs increase their annual income by over 355%, and 70% remain employed in the second year after placement.
  • Using outcome measures lets all stakeholders know what your expectations for service providers are. For example, in New York City the Administration for Children's Services Scorecard sets out a detailed process of review, rating and rebuttal for providers of foster care and preventive services. You can download a copy of the Scorecard methodology here.
  • More and more, funders like government and foundations are requiring outcome measures,  are basing funding decisions on prior outcomes, or letting performance-based contracts. In addition, accrediting agencies often require outcome measures. Having a system in place means access to more funding opportunities.
Sometimes directors or managers believe that they don't have time, or staff, or money to develop or use outcome measures, or that their clients or services are too specialized to make generalizations possible. They're wrong. There are also many internal reasons to develop and use outcome measures:
  • Your staff can see whether their efforts really make a difference in people's lives. 
  • If not, then staff are in a position to suggest changes or improvements to programs.
  • You can target effective services for expansion or replication.
  • You can compare program performance from year to year.
This post is part of a series about developing and using high quality management indicators.You can see related posts here and here.


The Guardian's Data Blog

I have been having a good time this week exploring the Guardian's data blog. Some of my favorite entries:

This post asking for readers' thoughts about fundraising in the US presidential campaign.

An entry explaining how to win the Booker Prize - in charts. (That's a screenshot, above.) The charts encompass what happens to an author's sales after winning or even being shortlisted.

Olympics data.

And this stats quiz that "tests your vulnerability to spin." I got 4 out of 5 - how did you do? I should have re-examined this post, but instead I got lazy.


September 2012 warmest on record - worldwide

It may not have seemed so in parts of the US, but worldwide temperatures in September 20112 were the warmest the month has been since record keeping began in 1880, according to NOAA. It was also the 331st straight month with above-average temperatures, and the 36th straight year with a global temperature above the 20th century average.

What does this mean? Weather patterns are changing. As Andrew Freedman of Climate Central puts it:
Ocean temperatures were boosted by a borderline weak El Niño episode on the tropical Pacific Ocean, which is associated with warmer-than-average water temperatures. According to NOAA, such conditions are likely to continue throughout the winter, with earlier forecasts for a moderate El Niño no longer looking likely. If an El Niño event does occur during the rest of 2012, it could bump global temperatures up further, since such events tend to boost global surface temperatures, NOAA reported.

The U.S. continued to suffer from one of its worst droughts on record, with the majority of the contiguous U.S. seeing some form of drought conditions during the month. In addition, eastern Europe, inclduing Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland, and Romania, suffered from drought conditions. In India, unusually dry weather was ameliorated when the Asian monsoon finally provided generous rains, albeit much later than average.

September also brought the lowest Arctic sea ice extent on record. Studies have shown that manmade global warming is the cause of the majority of sea ice loss that has occurred since the beginning of the satellite record in 1979.
Image from NOAA via climatecentral.org


Data managers and proxy data

I've been thinking about measurement lately (see also here for a slightly different view). So I read this post in the HBR Blog Network with some interest. In it, two consultants recommend that corporations need a Chief Data Officer - and I think it's a concept that has an analogy in the not-for-profit world as well. The CDO's purpose, say the authors, Anthony Goldbloom and Merav Block, is "oversight and evangelism at the highest levels of management." Specifically, the person:
  • Figures out how data can be used to support the organization's most important priorities - it's easy, after you've gone to the trouble of setting up outcome measures and other data management systems, to think that the functions can now be handed off to mid-level staff. But there's always something pressing that new or different data might help resolve.
  • Keep checking to make sure the organization is collecting the right data - what was once an outcome may now be an output, or you may have obtained funding to do further followup. Having a senior manager responsible for thinking about what is collected allows organizations to collect the data they need. It also allows you the possibility of experimenting with different service models because you can compare data. 
  • Ensuring the organization is able to collect the needed data - a top level view combined with the clout of a senior manager means that the organization will probably make better decisions about allocating limited resources for developing or enhancing data systems.
Update: Just after I posted this I came across an article that nicely illustrates the second point. There is a great deal of uncertainty whether hurricanes are increasing in number along with global warming - not all hurricanes strike land, and while we have good records from the 1970s forward (when we started using satellites to track hurricanes) that's not enough time to tell whether we are seeing natural fluctuations are a change.

Now a scientist at the University of Copenhagen, Alex Grinsted has published a report looking not at hurricanes but at storm surges, which have been measured reliably by tide gauges since the 1920s. It's a nice use of a different type of data that helps you find the information you are looking for. Grinsted's conclusion?
“Using surges as an indicator  . . . we see an increase in all magnitudes of storms when ocean temperatures are warmer.” As ocean temperatures have risen inexorably higher in the general warming of the planet due to human greenhouse-gas emissions, the scientists concluded, hurricane numbers have moved upward as well. The implication: they’ll keep increasing along with global temperatures unless emissions are cut significantly.


Correlation is not causation

It's kind of in the category of 'Man Bites Dog' but yet again a New York Times headline writer has confused correlation and causation. The headline reads: "Want Your Union to Last? Marry in New Jersey". Kind of grabs your attention. Except for this problem: people who are older when they marry and have more education are less likely to divorce. More of those people live in New Jersey and other northeastern states, hence the lower divorce rates. 

The story itself gets the issue right. The article is illustrated by a nice graphic - that's the screen shot above.


Examining your productivity

I'm planning a series on using data analysis at work - you'll see it unfolding over the next month or so. That series will be about using data to measure outcomes. But to help you get used to the idea, here's a link to a brief Harvard Business Review Blog Network entry, "Ironman Competitors Measure Their Performance (And So Should You). In it H. James Wilson argues that three simple strategies used by elite athletes can also help regular office workers.

What are they?
* Try what works for you - moderation may be good for some, while measuring everything works for others. (Until it's time to start measuring the measurements, of course.)
* Measure a set period of time, such as 1-2 weeks. As Wilson says, think "in terms of quick tests rather than a[n] open-ended process." That way you can use your first test as a baseline, then test the different organizational or other changes you make.
* Use the data to figure out what's limiting your performance. Spending too much time with email? Facebook? When you have the data you can change how you operate.

I'm a little hesitant about self-quantifying one's entire life (the unquantified life is definitely worth living!) but I will definitely use some of this software to develop feedback about my productivity. Perhaps I'll even report on my progress.


Very cool, and thoughtful, mapping web site.

I came across this very creative mapping site yesterday. Benjamin Hennig, the owner, a cartographer at the University of Sheffield, is interested in improving how mapmakers can use maps to better convey information. He's particularly interested in visualizing social dimensions. The map above? It's a screenshot of a 2010 map showing maps participating in the 2010 World Cup tournament (in white; past winners of the world cup are starred) with all countries sized according to GDP.

The site has other interesting maps, including Foreign Debt Holders of US Government Securities (2011), a visualization of population changes in Sheffield (2012), and a map of Global Publishing Markets (2012). There's also a post comparing Hennig's method to conventional mapping approaches, around the issue of refugees, here. In addition to the fact that the maps are interesting, and information pops out at you, each post contains a careful explanation of and referral to relevant data sources. It's a great site, and I intend to continue exploring it. You should, too, but first click on the map below.


Hate PowerPoint? Here's why you should

I've mentioned Edward Tufte, the statistician and political scientist before. Now I've read Tufte's 2003 essay "The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint: Pitching Out Corrupts Within" which makes a compelling case for ditching PowerPoint in favor of written reports or conversations.
In practice, PP slides are very low resolution compared to paper, most computer screens, and the immense visual capacities of the human eye-brain system. With little information per slide, many slides are needed. Audiences endure a relentless sequentiality . . . Information stacked in time makes it difficult to understand context and evaluate relationships . . . The statistical graphics produced by Power Point are astonishingly thin, nearly content-free.
I could go on, because it's all so well written. One of Tufte's key points is that PowerPoint is designed for the presenter, not for the audience and especially not for the content. He argues that using PowerPoint for presentations means using an underlying metaphor of the software corporation, ie, "a big bureacracy engaged in computer programming (deep hierarchical structures relentlessly sequential, nested, one-short-line-at-a-time)" (the italics are his). A better metaphor, Tufte says, is teaching. Thus the increasing use of PowerPoint in schools is cause for grave concern.

Tufte's examples are many: the most telling is his review of the slides from a presentation by engineers about the space shuttle Columbia's prospects for safe re-entry after foam blocks struck the shuttle during liftoff. He also reproduces Peter Norvig's translation of the Gettysburg Address in PowerPoint (only six slides and worth a look if you haven't already seen it.)

So how do you improve presentations? Tufte says two things: (1) use MS Word, not PowerPoint as your presentation software. (2) Develop a short briefing paper including text, graphics, and sparklines as a handout. The pamphlet is available from Tufte's website here; you can also read a further discussion here.

(That's Austin Kleon's mind map of Tufte's book "Beautiful Evidence" above, via Kleon's cool blog.)


Access to contraception means women use it

Many news outlets have covered a study reporting a significant decrease in abortions, repeat abortions, and teen births when no-cost contraception is provided. The journal Obstetrics & Gynecology is making the article available free, here. Were you inclined to click on the link and look at the article itself? Me, too. Which is one reason it's no surprise that making access to contraception easier, and free, means that people are more likely to use it.

The study wasn't just about lowering abortion rates. It was about increasing the use of long-term contraceptives, such as the IUD and implants, that are reversible, easy to use, and have low failure rates. (The study reports that IUDs and contraceptive implants are about 20 times more effective at preventing pregnancy than the pill, the patch, or the vaginal ring.) And providing those options met a need: participants chose IUDs and contraceptive implants at much higher rates than expected.

The results are stunning:
  • The birth rate among study participants aged 15-19 was 6.3 per 1000, far below the national level of 34.3 births per 1000.
  • Abortion rates among study participants ranged from 4.4 to 7.5 per 1000, well below the national rate of 19.6 per 1000.

The study's authors, Jeffrey Peipert, Tessa Madden, Jenifer Allsworth, and Gena Secura, conclude:
Increasing access to the most effective contraceptive methods by removing cost and access as barriers has greatly increased the number of adolescents and women in the St. Louis region using the most effective methods of birth control. Providing no-cost contraception and promoting the use of highly effective contraceptive methods has the potential to reduce unintended pregnancies in the United States. [C]hanges in contraceptive policy simulating the Contraceptive CHOICE Project would prevent as many as 62–78% of abortions performed annually in the United States.
Lowering the number of abortions performed because fewer unintended pregnancies mean less demand is a worthy goal. It's been my experience that, in the abstract, no one wants an abortion. But there are times when a pregnancy isn't welcome: birth control fails, or hasn't been used. And that's when we want abortion available, for ourselves, our sisters, our mothers, our daughters - it's the best of the options. Providing effective contraception to as many women as possible is a good start.


Increasing Antarctic Sea Ice and Global Warming

I received a comment or two in response to my earlier post about the record Arctic sea ice melt, arguing that I should address the increasing sea ice around the Antarctic. There are climate skeptics who claim that the increase, which is small but exists (you'll have to scroll down to the bottom of the linked page) means that global warming is not happening, or at least concerns are greatly exaggerated. That is simply wrong. Justin Gillis, a writer for the New York  Times' Green blog, has recently written a post debunking the myth.

The bottom line is that the extent of what is happening in the Arctic dwarfs what is happening in the Antarctic. As Gillis puts it, "in percentage of ocean cover, the decline in Arctic winter ice is eight times as fast as the increase in Antarctic winter ice."

There's no question that the issues are complex. But the Arctic and the Antarctic are not directly comparable:

  • the Arctic is an ocean, confined and shallow, and surrounded by land. The Antarctic is a continent, land surround by deep ocean.
  • The poles are in different places. When it is summer in the Arctic, it is winter in the Antarctic, and vice versa. So simultaneous ice melt in one and ice growth in the other are expected.
  • The topography is different. As Gillis explains it, in contrast to the Arctic:
In Antarctica, when winter sets in and the sun drops low in the sky, sea ice can grow unimpeded over the huge ocean surface. But then, in contrast to the historical situation in the Arctic, about 80 percent of the Antarctic ice melts in the summer. So the Antarctic ice has always come and gone in an annual rhythm. Most of it does not hang around to reflect sunlight back to space at the time of year when Southern Hemisphere sunlight is strongest.
The blog Skeptical Science points out that the Southern Ocean is warming, even while Antarctic sea ice is increasing. Its conclusion:
In summary, Antarctic sea ice is a complex and unique phenomenon. The simplistic interpretation that it must be cooling around Antarctica is decidedly not the case. Warming is happening - how it affects specific regions is complicated.
Read these two columns for yourself for more detail and some useful graphics.


Another caution in chart interpretation

From the Atlantic's Derek Thompson, a graph showing youth unemployment in Europe, with particularly high numbers in Greece and Spain. He's pulled numbers from a Eurostat report. Without knowing more, it's hard to tell whether he's cherry picked data or not. To his credit, he explains what, exactly, he's graphing:
Here's what the graph doesn't tell us: That a majority of Greek and Spanish young people don't have a job. Unemployment is a ratio: Unemployed people / the workforce. If you're in school or not actively looking for a job, you're not counted in the unemployment rate. As a result, the same number of unemployed young people will yield a higher rate with a smaller workforce. A different ratio calculated by the BBC with Eurostat figures -- unemployed youths as a percentage of the whole youth population -- yields a 19% figure for Spain and a 13% figure for Greece.
Here's what the graph does tell us: Young workers in Greece and Spain are facing an absolutely egregious work drought, where half of high-school and college-graduates ready to find a job aren't finding one.
But when you look at the full report, you can see he's omitted the countries with lower rates of youth unemployment. You can infer that they must be there, since the EU average is so much lower than the rates for Greece and Spain. It would have been nice to see them (they are: Germany, 8.1%, the Netherlands, 9.4%, and Austria, 9.7%.) There's also no source listed for the US data. So the bottom line is, be cautious.


NY Times on declining enrollment in US graduate schools

Quite a lot of the points in this article point to what might be a grim future for the United States:

* The number of students in master's and doctoral programs declined by 1.7% from fall 2010 to fall 2011. (This excludes law and medical schools.) The number of Americans matriculating decreased by 2.3%, while temporary residents increased enrollment by 7.8%. These numbers suggest that we are turning our graduate schools over to foreign students. It's great for as many people as possible to study here, and to be exposed to American culture and values, but we also need to educate ourselves. We will need PhDs to staff our colleges and universities in 20-30 years.

* Education had the biggest drop-off. One explanation, from the president of the Council of Graduate Schools, is that financial stress means that teachers can no longer get time off to get advanced degrees, and school systems don't have money to let principals get principal certificates. If we can't afford to educate our teachers, what's going to happen to our primary and secondary education in the next ten to fifteen years?

* State budgets are also forcing reductions in aid to graduate students. This goes back to the first point: what is going to happen to us if we can't educate ourselves?

There is some good news in the report: graduate applications are rising, and the acceptance rate is decreasing. I hope that means that better students are getting into, and going, to graduate school.


Skewed political polls?

Update, October 17: Here's a link to Nate Silver's more serious NY Times column on the temptations, and risks, of cherry picking poll results.

Here's a link to Nate Silver's take on the skewed polls claim. The bottom line? Over the last few decades of political polling, the polls have been pretty balanced, making mistakes in one direction one year, and in the other in other years. Four years ago, they got the presidential election exactly right. Silver points out that the "oversampling" criticism is "largely unsound." He goes on:
But pollsters, at least if they are following the industry’s standard guidelines, do not choose how many Democrats, Republicans or independent voters to put into their samples — any more than they choose the number of voters for Mr. Obama or Mitt Romney. Instead, this is determined by the responses of the voters that they reach after calling random numbers from telephone directories or registered voter lists.
Pollsters will re-weight their numbers if the demographics of their sample diverge from Census Bureau data. For instance, it is typically more challenging to get younger voters on the phone, so most pollsters weight their samples by age to remedy this problem.
But party identification is not a hard-and-fast demographic characteristic like race, age or gender. Instead, it can change in reaction to news and political events from the party conventions to the Sept. 11 attacks. Since changes in public opinion are precisely what polls are trying to measure, it would defeat the purpose of conducting a survey if pollsters insisted that they knew what it was ahead of time.
For another take on the issue, see this Stephen Colbert segment (I've linked it as well as embedded it).

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