Monday, August 24, 2020

Data is the Story

In middle school English I remember we did a drama activity in which the class divided into groups. Each group wrote, produced, and performed a play. The point of the activity was that each part of the process – the writers, the actors, and the stage crew/promoters etc. was important to putting on a good play. I got it and when I talk to my friends in Hollywood, many of whom work on production (although I know a few writers as well) they emphasize how critical the sound engineer’s work (for example) is to making a decent movie. Conversely a bad sound engineer or video editor can absolutely ruin a movie. Many of these functions will go unnoticed – a prop-master has done a good job if the viewer never even thinks about the props because that they fit seamlessly into the story. 

All well and good, but I didn’t buy it: because without a writer, you have nothing. Seeing a tremendous production of a Shakespeare play is a sublime experience. But reading a Shakespeare play is pretty great in and of itself. The same cannot be said about the other components of the play (or movie.) The writing is the engine, the essential thing.

Go figure that I aspired to be a writer…


Now, in my data analytics adjacent professional world, this lesson has returned to me. AI/ML is all the rage these days. Yet, high-end analytics are useless without data. At the same time, with data, even simple analytics can be extremely useful and provide important insights. Mapping to the drama comparison: the data is the script, the analytics is the acting, and production is everything else – visualization, communication etc.


Analytics can play a critical role in bringing meaning from the data. Visualization and communication (the latter is my part of the business) are critical for making the findings interpretable to decision-makers and meaningful to the public. The importance of both of these elements should not be underplayed. But without data, there is nothing. I’ve been to meetings where potential users get very excited over a flashy visualization, not recognizing the dearth of substance beneath it.


To people outside of this world, it should be understood that in many cases, the data on a particular issue or problem is not collected or is not collected consistently. There are a range of social and policy issues around this. We are seeing it now in the pandemic response, where data on COVID-19 cases is collected inconsistently. There are divergences in timing, delivery, data format, and a plethora of issues that complicate obtaining an accurate read on the national situation.


Caveat: This is not to fuel conspiracy theories that COVID-19 isn’t a big deal. It is. The data we have is imperfect but undeniable – millions have been infected and over 170,000 people have died, most needlessly. The point is more accurate data would enable more effective policy response: identifying points of origin, trajectory of spread, and more accurate projections of future outbreaks.


In many cases, what is called algorithmic bias is really a matter of data bias. The data was collected improperly or annotated and curated improperly. This is a vast issue. The way data is collected reflects institutional priorities and the way in which instances are categorized as types shapes what kinds of analytics can be run. Bad analytics can generate lousy findings from good data, just as a lousy actor can ruin a great scene. Glossy visualizations and smooth patter can sell weak conclusions (who hasn’t gone to a lousy movie because of a great looking trailer.) But if you don’t start with good data – that as much as possible reflects reality and takes into account the multiple facets of reality – you are unlikely to end up with quality results.


This is hard to do, just like writing is hard: I complain about it constantly. But good writing and good data both share a quality of the real and can unlock deep truths.

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Advice for Joe Biden's 2020 running mate in USA Today


'The vice presidency is a good gig': Here's some advice for Joe Biden's 2020 running mate


Aaron Mannes, Opinion contributor Published 5:02 a.m. ET Aug. 2, 2020

You didn’t become vice president just for future opportunities. You want to make a difference now. There’s good news and bad news.

Congratulations on being selected as Joe Biden’s running mate. If the polls hold, you’ll be the first female vice president of the United States. (Don’t take too much credit for the win, or blame if you lose. Research shows that the vice presidential candidate doesn’t make much difference.)

The vice presidency is a good gig. It comes with a plane, a nice house and lots of high-profile appearances. It provides a good chance of becoming president. Of the 48 vice presidents, 14 have become president (15, if Biden is elected). Again, if Biden is elected then in the past 14 presidential elections, three vice presidents have been elected president (Nixon, Bush and Biden) and two others came very close (Humphrey and Gore).

But you didn’t become vice president just for future opportunities. You want to make a difference now. There’s good news and bad news. Good news, first.

Good news for the potential next VP

In 1976, Democratic presidential nominee Jimmy Carter revolutionized the vice presidency. Historically, the office was mostly the butt of jokes, what historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. called a constitutional "appendix.” Carter viewed this as waste. The former Georgia governor chose Walter Mondale, a respected Democratic senator from Minnesota, for their personal and political compatibility. This was an innovation in its own right — previous presidential nominees hadn’t given it much thought. Carter ensured his vice president would have access to the president and the White House policy process. This included a weekly private lunch with the president and entrĂ©e for the vice president and his staff to White House meetings and paper flow at every level. Most important was giving Mondale a West Wing office. In the White House things happen on the fly, but unlike his predecessors, Mondale could look in on the national security adviser or chief of staff — whose offices are right next door, or see the president in the Oval Office down the hall.

These vice presidential perquisites have continued and expanded. Mondale’s chief of staff was also made a member of the White House staff, giving him access to the White House. By 2016, the final full year of Biden’s vice presidency under President Barack Obama, eight people from his office were also on the White House staff.

Biden, as a two-term vice president, chose you for the ticket because you are “simpatico.” Biden won’t cut you out of the process, like President Richard Nixon did to Vice President Spiro Agnew, who he despised. You will see the president often and know what’s going on in the White House.

There’s stuff you should do to keep things this way. Presidents hate leaks. You can give the president unvarnished advice, even disagree with him, but do it privately. Stories of president-vice president disagreements will be bad for both of you. Don’t let your staff leak either. Dan Quayle didn’t have a great hand to play as vice president in President George H.W. Bush’s administration, but his staffers leaking White House dirt didn’t help. And when the president makes a decision, like it or not, publicly support it.

Bad news for Biden's VP candidate

Now the bad news: Biden knows how to “president.” The expansion of the vice president’s role has coincided with a string of outsider presidents who came to office with little or no experience in D.C.—governors (and also Obama who had only been in the Senate for four years). They turned to their vice presidents when they faced new issues such as national security, and unfamiliar Washington institutions, like Congress.

Biden was vice president for eight years and a senator from Delaware for 36 years. What can you tell him about Congress or world affairs that he won’t already know? Further, Biden has plenty of experienced advisers. Outsider presidents have turned to the experienced staffers of their insider vice presidents. When incoming President Ronald Reagan saw his team needed more Washington experience, he turned to James Baker, campaign manager and close friend of his GOP primary rival-turned-vice president, George H.W. Bush. As White House Chief of Staff the uber-effective Baker played a critical role in making the Reagan Revolution a reality. 

Serving an insider president puts you in a similar position to Dan Quayle, who found the job mostly fundraising and funerals.

All is not hopeless. One presidential resource is finite: time. Find areas that are important, but the president lacks the time to address. Quayle did useful diplomacy in Latin America and Asia, where the president’s national security team — focused on Europe and the Middle East — didn’t have time. Alternately, the president may have an issue in which he is heavily invested and assigns you to reinforce this commitment. President Bill Clinton was deeply interested in Russia and assigned Vice President Al Gore to oversee a bilateral commission to strengthen those ties. 

Unattached to any bureaucracy and with a unique convening power, vice presidents can be a force multiplier and bring focus to key issues. George H.W. Bush oversaw regulatory reform and a counter-terror task force. Besides several bilateral commissions, Gore ran the reinventing government initiative. Biden managed the stimulus spending for Obama. Biden will probably give you a few such assignments. 

Biden is famously friendly, you’ll get along great with him. But that doesn’t mean that your efforts mesh politically with the White House, which is a big bureaucracy in its own right. Having some of your staffers in senior White House positions would be great, but unlikely. Encourage your staff to get close to their White House counterparts, and consider bringing experienced Biden staffers onto your team.

Your job is to help the president any way that you can. Everything you know about the president — what he’s worried about, what he needs, what he doesn’t know that he should — can help you help him.

Congratulations and good luck. We all are wishing you every success — we’re all counting on you.

Aaron Mannes is a lecturer at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy. He wrote his dissertation on vice presidential influence. Follow him on Twitter: @awmannes