Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Polling and Data

Everyone's all a buzz with the general election coming up. We see cool touch screen maps on CNN and tons of polling data all around us. I just heard that one candidate took a stance on the whole Georgia/Florida water feud to pick up some votes from Floridian oyster farmers. What?! This is really crazy to me. How does the campaign even know these people exist?

My issue isn't with oyster farmers. I question these polls. As a matter of fact, I am a huge huge suporter of informed decsion making, and guess what, data is information. Let me contextualize my point of view.

For years I worked with non-profits. Non-profits are notorious for being disorganized and mismanaged*. But the misuse of data and innacurate conclusions from poor quality information collection struck me from the begining. I happened to be working for an awesome small organization which has now gone national. Fortunately they were cutting edge: 1) They had a database to track all of their "clients" 2) The database tracked a lot of different types of data 3) They understood the value of using this data for making decisions for and about their "clients" 4) They were willing to learn. I was fortunate enough to be put in charge of the database and I was the lead number cruncher. Interestingly enough I spent most of my time educating my co-workers in how to accurately communicating our results. It was easy to say that 80% of our clients improved when in reality 80% of clients received the instruction and tools which we believed led to improvement. Big difference.

But I digress. As I got deeper into the data analysis and our number crunching became more complex I stumbled upon an anecdote from a college prof. She warned of the dangers of using statistical software to do data anlysis. In her day she had to write the code for the stats software and then crunch the numbers. It took her years to get the training to do this and guess what, she knew her stuff. Today data analysis software easy to come across and large data sets are often offered for free. This means that more people are crunching numbers and coming to conclusions. Today's statistical conclusions, in essence, are cheaper and this has effected the quality of the conclusions. Understand this, the people crunching the numbers today don't necessarily have the same training as the people crunching numbers years ago.

So, I pose this question. Do you trust poll results? Everyone has their unique methodology. Everyone has their biases. Is it possible for polls to be used as a political tool to sway the public? I have seen organizations want a good result so much that they unknowlingly distort conclusions. What is your opinion? 

* This isn't a statement about all nonprofits. There are many organizations that are awesome businesses and I think some publically traded companies should take a hint from some of these smaller organizations.