Data for good: the home edition

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Wide open spaces

“He spends a lot of time wandering around in circles in the backyard,” my wife said to someone on the telephone. That’s true.

Our backyard is only about 1/8th of an acre and I have taken to wandering outside and walking around the fence line. Ostensibly, I am checking to see if the voles are attacking the garden, but that’s not really why. The truth is that I have always been a walker from the time I was a very small child wandering away from my mother to now, my current self, fifty years later.

The pandemic changed our focus, not our purpose

The Covid-19 pandemic instantly transformed the world. My team and I were already in the cloud, working with people across the United States and around the world every day. We were already working with health care data and involved in data-for-good projects at SAS.

Before the pandemic, we hosted a group of high school students at SAS for a "Discover, Lead, Solve" workshop where we analyzed data showing the relationship between immunization rates and women’s rights to control their own health care decisions. This issue was originally identified by the Gates Foundation as an obstacle to ensuring health care for all long before this current pandemic. We pointed students to the free version of SAS for students and the World Bank’s open data sources.

Since the pandemic, we have launched two separate data-for-good efforts.

  1. A crowdsourced effort with environmental scientists at IIASA to identify the effects of human impact on the rainforest.
  2. A crowdsourced effort with Appalachian State University to document the Global Pollinator population of bees.

We have supported various COVID-19 projects at SAS and are continuing our work to provide advanced data visualization capabilities with our Life Science Analytics Framework for drug development and discovery efforts. In some ways, our work has continued just the same.

The pandemic changed how we work 

We have changed our teleworking habits. Despite having the technology to do it, I had never turned on a video camera during conferences. Now, I do. I recognize the importance of being able to see the faces of my co-workers when we are working. I realize now how much I was missing when working with others far away.

Highway 55 Wednesday morning at rush hour (May 2020) from 1,000s of cars to two

I have worked for years with people whose only office is at home. I now have a much better understanding of the challenges that poses. Empathy is easier when you have spent some time living the life another person lives.

And I have become acutely aware of how I actually work. At SAS, our campus sits in the middle of a forest. As I exit my building, I am only a hundred yards from a path through the woods, winding along a creek to a lake and around the far side of campus back to the building. I have often joked that more good code gets written on that greenway than anywhere else on campus.

As I walk along, trying to figure out some bit of code or think through some analytic challenge, I hear other programmers and data scientists hashing out a problem of their own. We all know the benefits of paired programming where just having someone else sit down to look at your code immediately allows you to see the bug you were missing. For me, the next best thing is to stop thinking about the problem and give my brain a chance to solve it.

Where I live, we have a wonderful greenway that winds for miles and miles, but it is a bit too far to solve a simple problem. In its place, I have the backyard. No creek. No lake. No other programmers figuring things out. Only a little rectangle of fence line to walk along.

Warning sign along the Cary Greenway (March 2020)

And the pandemic has made me acutely aware, like many other people, of the places and people in my own community who I value and miss. Having lived through two recessions and the 911 attacks, I am old enough to understand that there will be a lasting effect.

Fear of the unknown and a new appreciation

I am not an economist, nor am I an epidemiologist, but I have spent a couple of decades analyzing both business and health data. I was analyzing a state’s pharmacy data when I noticed a strange spike in narcotic prescriptions. Other researchers would later define this as the opioid crisis. The sharp increase in prescriptions wasn’t the result of the disease; it was the disease.

For another project, I analyzed sales data for a hundred year-old publicly traded company whose business was no longer working. I watched as sales declined and the company faded into history. I am watching now in horror at the thought of those two lines crossing: A sharp increase in disease and a sharp decrease in sales. The result of that interaction effect is frightening to imagine.

When I hear the experts say that not every business is going to survive this pandemic, I know they are right. Not all great shops and restaurants managed and staffed by wonderful people will survive this. Some of my and your most favorite places will not endure – through no fault of their own. Simply stated, a business that works in some places at some times does not always work in a different place at a different time. Even standing still right here, right now, this is a different place at a different time.

This weekend, I set out to write a brief letter, an appreciation, to the owners of the Ninth Street Bakery, a bakery in Durham that is now selling everything from t-shirts to their own sourdough starter and flour. I have been going there for more than twenty years and hope to be able to get a loaf of bread, a sandwich, a cookie, or all of the cookies there twenty years from now.

I know it sounds like a cliché, but I have always believed we should think globally and act locally. I work in the cloud; I shop down the street. I am sure that you feel the same way about many of the places in your community as I feel about Ninth Street Bakery.

Certainty in uncertain times

They say that these are “uncertain” times, but I am beginning to be more certain about some things. I am not going to propose that the pandemic might make me, or you, or any of us, better people. But this tragedy has made many of us much more sensitive to what we value and, in particular, people and places we appreciate. I am much more certain of some things.

I miss being able to walk the greenway around SAS campus, but it will still be there when I return. I am grateful to be able to work with people all around the world, but I am certain there is a better way to do it. How much were we missing when we could not see each other: a wry grin, a head nod, an eye roll, a chuckle, a guffaw?  We can change that.

I am amazed at the incredible success of K12 teachers in Wake County to assemble, in two weeks, an online curriculum to keep students engaged. I am impressed by the speed at which Wake Technical and Community College was able to implement a fully online summer curriculum, especially given the importance of the college in providing nursing, health care, and high-tech manufacturing technicians who we desperately need to help care for patients and manufacture health care equipment and drugs. I am absolutely certain that the work these educators are doing is critical to our ability to fight and overcome the current challenge.

I miss Dan, the barber who cuts my hair. I really miss Dan. But I now know this: I can live for three months or more without a haircut. I am certain of exactly how bad my own hair looks and I know without a doubt that no Durham Bulls baseball cap or hair gel can fix this. But I can live with this hair until Dan can safely cut it.

I am certain my medusa mane, an “Einstein with Bedhead” bowlcut-without-a-bowl tangle of black and grey strands makes it look much worse. I can image how I look walking around my own backyard: ironed dress shirt and old jeans, shaggy hair unkempt, an odd mix of business causal and Woodstock hippie, walking around the backyard in circles six or seven times a day, but that’s OK.

Why am I walking around in circles? What is that all about? Nothing unusual at all.

That’s just me, working from home.

Read more about our data-for-good approach to COVID-19
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About Author

Elliot Inman

Manager, Software Development

Elliot Inman, Ph.D., is a Manager of Software Development for SAS® Global Hosting and US Professional Services. Over the past 25 years, he has analyzed a wide variety of data in areas as diverse as the effectiveness of print and digital advertising, social service outcomes analysis, healthcare claims analysis, employee safety, educational achievement, clinical trial monitoring, sales forecasting, risk-scoring and fraud analytics, general survey analysis, performance benchmarking, product pricing, text processing, and basic scientific research on human memory and cognitive processes. After completing his undergraduate degree at North Carolina State University, he went on to earn a Ph.D. in Experimental Psychology from the University of Kentucky in 1997. In 2005, he started at SAS as an Analytical Consultant. In 2010, he joined SAS Solutions OnDemand (now SAS Global Hosting), SAS’ high performance cloud computing center. His current focus is on implementing SAS Visual Analytics to provide non-statisticians deeper insight into the results of data mining and machine learning models. He leads the Visual Analytics data visualization team for SAS' GatherIQ data for good platform. In addition to his work at SAS, he has led makerspace and creative coding workshops for college students who want to explore a different way of using technology to do cool and useful things.

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