Cool kids like me get @guardianclasses on data visualisation for Christmas – from their significant others no less. So last night we traipsed through the very much gentrified (in comparison to when I lived there a decade ago) King’s Cross to the swanky Guardian HQ to join 150 other pinko-liberals and learn about creating a story from data. For those of you who haven’t snoozed off by now, let me explain why this excites me: data is what drives our economy, it surrounds us – just like the Force, but better; because it can be interpreted and packed into lovely infographics.
Why is this exciting? Because visualising data helps tell a story, facilitates understanding, and may protect us from the dark side… you get my drift: it is more and more data and information driven models power pretty much our world – and we have learn not only to deal with that, but to help shape it. This is complex, and data visualisation can help us both understand and communicate our ever more complex environment. In an earlier life I used to build databases – assuming that a good report would always make us see the light. I have learnt over time though, that the way information is shared is probably just as important as to which information is shared. Too often it’s not the better idea that wins, it’s the one that’s been better explained.
And here is where data visualisation comes in – visual beings that we are, our attention can be drawn to where it should be. And also, understanding data visualisation will help us understand if someone tries to shift our attention from where it should be to where they want it to be – just check out Iain Duncan Smith’s impressive work on that front. In my review of 2013, I made the prediction that I will need to learn about interpreting and understanding data – and this masterclass was a first step. While I am happy to geek out about data, there is a specific professional pursuit behind this: I feel that a lot within the world of careers and employability is ‘best practice’ driven, and that for many an intervention, there is only scant evidence.
So at work, I am embarking on a project to interpret and understand the various data that we hold on our clients/students, and their journey through their course of study. This is to better understand their needs – so we can better address them. For this, a lot of work will be necessary to analyse all this data, and come to conclusions – but also to explain them. And this is where I’m betting on visualisation. That’s a learning curve, and a steep one – but I find the challenge both motivating, and using the more academically inclined part of my brain rewarding. So I’m closing with a great video, which exemplifies the above points in my humble opinion most impressively.
I always enjoy visiting the ‘North’, where @martinedmonson and his Gradcore/Graduates Yorkshire outfit roams. The Gradcore conferences are always worth taking part in, as they are a brimming with critical thinking and debate on all things employability, graduate recruitment and employment. In order to stay true to my blog’s premise of sticking to one paragraph, I’m focusing on only one unconference track (look it up – learn something new today) that I ran with the ever excellent Vanessa Gough, legendary recruiter, from IBM. From the creative chaos that is an unconference (and the contributions of … wait … actual students), emerged a theme about what makes students employable – or better a number of characteristics: employable graduates are not clones, who have been coached to answer interview questions. ‘Employable’ is basically a meaningless term to students, and they don’t collectively buy it either. For them it’s really just another word for ‘professional’, describing a graduate’s outlook, conduct and mindset (introducing the term graduateness feels dirty, so I’ll abstain). The latter is not just achieved with clever module plans and learning outcomes, but by giving students the opportunity to engage and learn about how to be professional – based on their own effort. Yes, academic and professional support can help – but the responsibility sits with the learner. One participant (who trains professionals for the NHS) summed it up brilliantly: in a hospital, when a patient is admitted, a clock turns on immediately, which counts down to the date of the patients release – and the time is filled with opportunities and measures for them to get better (double meaning intended). The healing is done by the patient – and is influenced by their ability (and sometimes willingness) to engage with the opportunities to improve their situation. The clock ticks for students as well, and by the end of their stay (their degree), the students are now sent out into a challenging post-crisis environment. Employability professionals can’t force results – and they shouldn’t try. It’s also down to their universities not to make unrealistic promises (or set pointless targets), but to nurture, foster and challenge where appropriate, as in the end they are educators. Well embedded employability in (and outside) the curriculum helps, but only if it doesn’t become just an internal measure which makes the university feel good about their ‘employability figures’ (a misnomer at the best of times). It’s about true preparation for life after university – and getting there is certainly not always pretty, but challenging, sometimes even scary – but sometimes comes with beautiful results. To exemplify this, I’d like to use one of Vanessa’s stories. It was about a graduate who had taught herself sign language to support a hard of hearing regular customer in the restaurant she was working in, making their customer experience more enjoyable. Only when she told this story in an interview did she understand how much that said about her in terms of her true professionalism – and yes, that was what made her employable in the end. I must admit, for a moment, I had a tear in my eye.