Spreadsheets, tables, and reams of information fill your monitor. There’s so much raw potential. The data sits before you, waiting for exploration.
Then it sets in…data panic.
Data panic undermines your confidence. It’s the voice in your head reminding you that you never took a statistics class, the cold sweat that comes when no one else looks worried, and the confusion when you hear the cool kids at the conference talking about R and to you it’s just a letter. Data panic is the imposter syndrome that appears when you least expect it—when you have the data you need to analyze, but you can’t figure out how to start.
Hey. Guess what. This is normal. This happens to everyone, and if we’re being brutally honest (and I’m an archaeological ethicist, so I won’t lie to you), it happens regularly when we start a new project.
So take a deep breath, relax your shoulders, and let’s go through what to do, step-by-step, when the data panic sets in.
Remember, you know more about what to do than you think. You may not have chosen an analytical method yet, but the data came from somewhere, so let’s see what’s there that can get you started.
You’ll need a pack of sticky notes and a marker.
Step 1: Look for labels.
What commonalities do the labels on the spreadsheet tabs (or the file names) share? Are they geographical? Are they temporal? What was the organizing principle that guided data collection? Get a sticky note, write down the repeated terms you see on your data labels. Then, move those sticky notes around until you can see how sticky note A relates to sticky note B. Knowing how the data is organized will help you in getting ready for Step 2.
Step 2: Look at what kind of data is present.
Determining your methodology will be a lot easier (and the panic will subside more quickly) when you get a handle on what kind of data you’re looking at. Consider it from an exclusionary standpoint. If the data in your data set is all measurements of cow bones, you’re going to be doing a very different kind of analysis than if it’s all tabulations of ethnographic interviews. Get another sticky note, and on this one, write down the topic of the data. Use a note for each topic. Move those sticky notes around until your notes from Step 2 are matched up with your notes from Step 1. Knowing what kind of data you have will prepare you for for Step 3.
Step 3: Look at your research questions.
This step is where you go from organizing your data to making decisions about how you’re going to work with that data. In Step 2, you made a ‘data map’ of what your data is about, and what kind of data you have. Now that you have that data map, it’s time to come up with your research questions. What do you want to know that your data map suggests you can answer?
It’s sticky note time again.
Write all your questions on individual sticky notes. Do any questions sound the same? Are any actually the same question, just asked another way? For now, pick the most important question TO YOU. Put that note in the center, and move the other question notes around it in order of importance. Then move your ‘data map’ stickies around, so that they match up with the questions.
Once you’ve done steps 1, 2, and 3, take a break for a bit. Have a cup of tea. Take a walk. You have a data plan now. Things are getting better.
Join me here soon for the second part in Conquering Data Panic, when we’ll go through how to put your data plan into action with digital and analog analysis methods.