Friday, June 17, 2011

Seeing Patterns in Data, Taking Actions in Life

As a university teacher I have taught on an number of campuses during my career. A few students remain in mind through the years for either having made a lasting positive impression or a lasting negative impression. I remember one student in a previous university employment who told me that as a public official her preparation for the prospect of a deadly epidemic would be to buy lots of coffins. I was at the time trying to teach her and other graduate students to use computer modeling to gain insights into dynamic complex systems so as to be able to take informed preemptive actions. In retrospect I realize that I should have been better prepared to demonstrate use of the software to my graduate students. But neither my colleagues nor my students seemed to appreciate the pedagogical use of computer simulations to help students better understand complex systems. I think now that if I had only shown students a computer simulation rather than asking them to think through the modeling of one the assignment would have been deemed acceptable. I have for years advocated that the academic field of public administration become more of a design science with ties not only to political science, management and business administration, but also to operations research. I take some comfort in the thought that Herbert Simon, if he were still with us and if he knew, would approve of my efforts, even if my efforts have on occasion contributed to the mobility of my career.

These memories were sparked this evening upon viewing the following TEDMED 2010 presentation. Jay Walker spoke of the origins of public health statistics using a Bills of Mortality book prepared during London's great plague of 1665. To me, his point is that data is the necessary basis of information that can support the knowledge needed to recognize patterns and design interventions.

If you would like to view the video directly from the YouTube site the URL is as follows.

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