Saturday, March 16, 2013

Data tracking and display for personal motivation

Here is a more personal case of data display - an extremely low-tech management information system of sorts.

I have a lot of grading and no teaching assistant; in a typical week, I need to grade about nine sets of assignments. Last semester, I fell behind, so this semester I was determined to stay on top of things.

I needed a system that would both track my grading, provide me with a reward, and allow others to monitor my progress. Not that anyone in my department is watching over my shoulder, but the fact that they could is an incentive.

Thus, the Peeps calendar with Lego Star Wars stickers. Every assignment I grade, I get a sticker. Yes, motivating me is much like motivating a toddler. As you can see here, I try to reserve grading for Monday through Friday. I was doing all right until the week of Feb. 17-23, when I was laid low by a nasty cold and it was all I could do to drag myself to class.

After a few weeks, I added to the system with a small white board that lists assignments that are turned in but not yet graded. It handily beats the system of sticky notes I was using!

Although this seems like a rather minor application of data display (and certainly an inelegant one), it has provided me with some useful feedback. I have found myself getting slightly behind in March, for example, primarily because advising takes up much of my time in the period before fall registration (as you can see on the white board). Knowing that allows me to decide how to tackle the problem before it gets out of hand, and in time to give students realistic midterm grades. Also, I get stickers.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

This blog is mentioned over at Paper Raven Editing in a post about academic blogging. Paper Raven offers editing services, and the brain behind it runs a great blog with advice about academic writing.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Presenting network analysis

The Chronicle of Higher Education; ran an article on how colleges select peers, both actual and aspirational, and with it they ran an interactive graphic showing what colleges select as their actual peers. (May be behind a paywall.) The data comes from always-popular IPEDS;, but the Chronicle put a fair amount of work into creating a more digestable presentation using Gephi, an open-source tool I have not yet tried.

I use the results in my Structure of Higher Education class. Students explored the data on their own, and we looked at it in class. In general, students found the graphic intuitive to use, although there were some technical issues: Some students reported that the data didn't load, or loaded very slowly. I found that it wouldn't load at all on my work PC, running college-mandated IE8 - but it worked, much to my surprise, on my iPhone. (At least I received the courtesy of an error telling me what browsers would work.)

The resulting graphic shows some things that tables couldn't easily. For example, some institutions cluster tightly, choosing each other as peers, whereas institutions do not. That's immediately visible by clicking on any institution, represented by a dot, and seeing whether the other dots that light up are near or far from it.

One minor distraction was that the entire graphic was not visible in one window. I didn't expect this on my iPhone, naturally, but even on a traditional monitor, only part of the data was visible at once, even when zoomed out. Ideally, the zoom level would allow it to all be seen at once. One potential fix would be to move institutional data from the right to the top or bottom, given the landscape orientation of the graphic. There is actually relatively little of what Tufte calls "chartjunk" taking up valuable screen space - the browser itself uses some space, but this is out of the Chronicle's control.

Overall, it's a relatively sophisticated presentation of data that really adds value above what a strictly tabular format would.