Making the Numbers Talk

As I near the end of the data collection phase of my research project, I find myself staring at some intimidating spreadsheets.  I created them, and yet I can relate to the bewilderment of Dr. Frankenstein upon the completion of his monster.

The next step is to analyze the numbers and translate them into English.  This process is relatively unknown to me (I make no claims of being a statistician).  Not only do I need the answers to certain questions from the data, but I need to determine what those questions are.

This week the Summer Fellows had their second Learning Session of the summer with Michelle Vander Stouw, an expert in strategic planning for non-profit organizations.  Part of her presentation focused on the importance of data and research for defining the conditions and environment of a nonprofit’s work.  I found this particularly relevant to my present conundrum.  The advice she gave was that the data should tell a story, a concept I have often heard mentioned.

But now I realize this is no amateur feat.  Right now it feels more like I am interrogating the data; trying to make it talk.

Happily, Michelle provided a few places to start in order to frame this data narrative, so I am not without ideas. Consider, who is your audience? What is your message? What kind of data will be useful?

Ultimately, I know that these are the questions I need to answer in the final report. However, I don’t think I can coerce my spreadsheets into this level of cooperation just yet. Right now I am starting with the basics, asking them simple questions.  “What is the average of these numbers?” “Are there outliers?”  “What is the total?”  My hope is that if we proceed slowly, the numbers will start to talk. And eventually, once they’ve warmed up to me, maybe then they will tell their story.

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