Exploring the human side of data

Each data point on a graph or buried in a spreadsheet may represent a person, a group of people, or a community.

About two-thirds of the way through her Analytics Experience presentation, Dr. Tricia Wang showed a video from Frans de Waal, a world-renowned primatologist.

The video showed two monkeys receiving rewards for giving a researcher a rock. Each time a monkey handed over a rock it received a piece of cucumber. That was until one monkey received a grape (a favorite monkey snack) for completing the task. When the other monkey still received a cucumber, his frustration began to show. He threw the cucumber and began to shake a barrier in frustration.

“de Waal wanted to explain that humans get our morality from monkeys,” Wang said. “He started the talk giving data points, talking about correlations, and giving the scientific reason for his beliefs. Of course, the audience was silent. About a minute into this video, though, his point became clear.”

With analytics it is easy to become caught up in the numbers. Analytics, after all, takes data and finds trends that can lead to actionable results for those leading the analysis.

After nearly a decade in local government and clinical practice, and now in my current position as National Director of Behavioral Health and Whole Person Care at SAS, I am constantly reminded that analytics is not solely about numbers. It is really about the lives involved, as Wang helped explain.

That was my key take away from the recent 2018 Analytics Experience Conference in San Diego, which can now be viewed on-demand for free. Each data point on a graph or buried in a spreadsheet represents a person, a group of people, or a community. And more often than not, analytics is being used to discover new ways to improve these people’s lives.

At SAS we have seen tremendous success with our Data for Good initiative. This program works with government organizations to use analytics to improve real-world problems, such as the opioid epidemic and high school graduation rates, among many others.

The true power, as many of the speakers helped share during Analytics Experience, was the ability to connect the numbers with the people. Wang explained that she too often sees a disconnect between the analytics side of the house and those that work in more customer-facing departments.

Working Together

Organizations, especially those in government, must be able to connect both the quantitative data that shows larger trends, and the qualitative data that can explain why certain actions happen.

The Arizona Department of Health Services did this as part of a project with the state’s midwives. The state upgraded an outdated paper-based system used to report on the work of midwives into a comprehensive online data system. The state worked with midwives to create this new platform that not only made the reporting requirements of midwives easier, but helped gather additional data on child births throughout the state. As Claudia Montes, the Health Department Data and Quality Improvement Bureau Chief, noted during her presentation, the state listened to the midwives to create a system that helped both of their needs.

“We worked together to find common goals,” Montes said. “We both wanted a system that was easy to use, but also provided valuable information. The data we collect from midwives can be used to improve statewide programs surrounding child birth.”

Montes and Rebecca Comrie of Canada’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health joined me for a discussion to kick off Analytics Experience. They shared challenges and opportunities to using analytics in improving public and operational policy. The theme of relationships and remembering the human impact was central to their successes.

Another success story featured during Analytics Experience, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, used SAS Visual Analytics to provide real-time visualizations of fishery survey databases. This information was used to improve how fisheries operate, and to ensure that the fish supplies in the state are maintained for anglers to enjoy. Again, in an agency with a vastly different mission, the ability to use data and analytics to enhance the human element was key.

It is these types of programs that ultimately show the true value of analytics.

Analytics can help to gain a whole view of people or an organization, showing larger trends or how certain actions affect large groups. The success comes from identifying where analytics, and those who use it, can gain true value to make a dynamic impact on our world.

If you are interested in hearing more about these human impact stories, or view other presentations from Analytics Experience, please visit our on-demand site.


About Author

Josh Morgan

National Director of Behavioral Health and Whole Person Care

As SAS’ National Director of Behavioral Health and Whole Person Care, Dr. Josh Morgan helps public sector health agencies use data and analytics to support a person-centered approach to improving health outcomes. A licensed psychologist, Dr. Morgan was previously San Bernardino County Department of Behavioral Health’s Chief of Behavioral Health Informatics. His clinical work includes adolescent self-injury, partial hospitalization, and intensive outpatient programs, psychiatric inpatient units and university counseling centers. Dr. Morgan earned his Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies from the University of California, Berkeley, and a PsyD (Doctor of Psychology) in Clinical Psychology with an emphasis in Family Psychology from Azusa Pacific University, and is trained in Dialectical Behavior Therapy.


  1. The analytics applied to AZ state for midwifery is really interesting to me. I think the numbers and analytics behind midwifery assisted childbirth, and natural childbirth can go a long way to informing individuals about the safety and benefits of these practices. It's something I'm glad to share with other folks in the natural childbirth community to encourage other statewide initiatives. Thanks for putting that out there.

    • Josh Morgan

      Thanks for your thoughts, Tom! It's a great example of the power of data to do good, raising awareness of and advocating for improved services, interventions, etc.! That's true quality improvement!!

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