Of Data and People

Lately I’ve been enamored with the notion that digital analytics data is a powerful and unique means to come closer to the people the data tries to describe.  I’ve recently defined this into a mission statement for Analytics Pros that we “narrow the distance between our clients and their customers.”  At its core this concept is relies on the principle that data describes something: in the case of digital analytics for web sites and mobile apps, that “something” is usually the users of that app, i.e. people.  At the same time, I’m also concerned that it is far too easy to forget the people behind the data.

In Haiti

So now I’m on a trip to Haiti.  What’s Haiti have to do with Digital Analytics?  Not much.  But then again, does it?

Let’s start with where I’m going and why.  Haiti: the most impoverished country in the western hemisphere.  As you may recall, in 2010 a huge earthquake devastated much of the country’s capital city, Port-Au Prince.  People went from having little to nothing.  Families were torn apart by death, injury, and just plain separation during the disaster and the mayhem and confusion that followed.  Significant hurricanes in following years further hurt the economy, which is largely dependant on agriculture (surprise, hurricanse and crops don’t tend to get along).

Stats on Haiti

Here are some resources for stats on Haiti:

The Earthquake

In the aftermath of the quake, a huge international response was organized.  People from all over the world responded with donations and going to Haiti to help.  Medical care was urgent – limited infrastructure and medical professionals to start with followed by the massive earthquake that wiped out much of what was there combined with collapsed buildings everywhere = major humanitarian and medical need.

Medical Teams International

Enter Medical Teams International.  MTI is one of many organizations that responded, sending teams of volunteer medical professionals to help with triage and emergency medical care in the days and weeks following the disaster.

So, now it’s 2013, three years after the earthquake.  Why am I going to Haiti?  Well, a few things.  First, Medical Teams is still there – helping people.  This is what MTI does: they don’t just respond when a disaster strikes, they also stick around for the long-term to help rebuild.  Part of their mission is not only to help in a crisis, but to help rebuild and improve.  Second, my wife and I have long supported MTI in several ways.  More recently, the Analytics Pros team has taken up a quarterly service day, volunteering in their Redmond, WA warehouse.  Third, my wife is a nurse by trade and has long wanted to use those skills in a field of operations.  An opportunity came up for her to volunteer in a hospital in Haiti and we’ve responded.  I’m going along to see where I can help (I’m not medically inclined at all) and to better understand first-hand the work that MTI does.

Back to Data and People

Circling back around, what does data have to do with people?  Living in a modern world so pervasively connected digitally it is also far too easy to miss the people.  Therein rests the point of it all: data is simply a language to describe things.  Data can describe people, but we mustn’t forget the people it describes.

The First 24 Hours in Haiti

On this trip I hope to learn.  To see people in a new way, to learn about how we can help.  To see how an organization like MTI keeps helping people in the years following a disaster.  In the first 24 hours of being here my wife and I are staying with a friend who has been volunteering with Child Hope for a few months.

The Feeding Program

First, we visited a “feeding program” where a couple hundred kids got a good meal – rice, beans and, bonus for Friday, chicken.  They even got water – from metal cups passed out… except they ran out of cups and clean water so a couple tables in the back corner didn’t get any.  There was a boy there at the back-most table, probably five or six years old and a little girl, maybe 2, who I presume was his little sister.  She wore a beanie cap like my own two-year-old, KariBella, love to wear.  They shared a plate of rice, beans, and chicken.  We were eventually able to get them half a cup of water left behind from another table – they were so happy to receive it.  It was saddening and encouraging at the same time to not be able to help much more than half a cup of shared water for lack of clean water: saddening because of the situation, encouraging to help in a tiny way for just a moment.  Giving a glass of water to my kids when I get home is going to feel very different after this trip.

The Tent City

Next, we went by the health clinic to pick up a few supplies for a trip into one of the nearby “tent cities.”  These are acres of make-shift dwellings where an entire family lives in a space often about 12’x12′ or less.  It’s hard to describe what it’s like and I’d rather use a picture, but the people really don’t like pictures being taken and it’s dangerous to walk around with a camera or iPhone, thus my words will have to suffice.  Entering a tent city from the street (street = what offroaders in the US would cautiously think about taking their super-sized 4×4 down if they had a good winch at ready to tow out with) is like entering a labrynth.  The paths of walkways, maybe 2 feet wide at most run between structures.  These walkways are usually also the runnoff channels for rainwater, wastewater and often human waste too.  In some cases these channels disappear underneath the “wall” (wall = tarp, canvas, or sheet metal nailed around sticks/tree limbs) of a shelter and emerge on the other side.  The smells are interesting: a blend of garbage and waste that’s about on par with the smell at your local waste transfer station on a hot summer day plus cooking, charcoal smoke, and the ever-present ambient odor of burning trash (the preferred method here of trash disposal apparently).  On this trip we visited a family who had a child with something wrong.  We gave them ultimately some ibuprofen and a recommendation to go to the clinic… the next Friday (the soonest available).

Later we ate dinner at the organization’s guest house, during which a thunderstorm struck and turned the streets into rivers of mud and gravel.  Runoff control systems = the street.

All in All

All in all I am just amazed by things here.  They are actually very different than what I expected.  The people are wonderful and seem largely undaunted by the conditions in which they live.  Mobile phones are everywhere too – something I’ve heard is common but is quite surprising to see.

Later this weekend are will be heading to the north of the country for my wife to volunteer with MTI at a hospital.  I’m not sure what I’ll be doing there, but I will be blogging as often as I can.

Data is about people, let’s not forget that.



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