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Playing Well with Others: Data, Tech and the Summer Conference Season

June 28, 2019

I love that my work at Abt Associates enables me to go to many different places and talk with a variety of experts. I specialize in the data and mathematical sciences and my favorite part of my job was summarized by the famous statistician John Tukey:

"The best thing about being a statistician is that you get to play in everyone's backyard."

Whether it’s helping my colleagues assess vaccine uptake and effectiveness in pregnant women, design a study to look at raising incomes of farmers in rural Egypt or develop web analytics to explore the impact of a Zika information campaign, I am fortunate that I get to apply my knowledge and data skills in several different venues. I’m also lucky because I get to go to a lot of conferences, some of which are focused on research methods and some that are not. Data is ubiquitous and I believed that it was the one thing that brought all areas of research, evaluation, policy and practice together at professional meetings—across all disciplines. I was wrong. I recently discovered that the growing presence of tech at these meetings is threatening data’s status as the one great unifier.

Surveying the Conference Scene: AAPOR
I recently attended the 2019 annual meeting of the American Association of Public Opinion Research (AAPOR). While I was a first-time AAPOR meeting attendee, I expected that public opinion research would go hand-in-hand with data and that would be how most of the presentations would lean. My mistake.

If you don’t keep up with AAPOR or survey research: The field is at a crossroads. Historically, collecting surveys by telephone has been an extremely common and popular tool for data collection. However, tech has been a disruptor in this area. With smart phones and mobile applications changing how people use their phones, response rates to telephone surveys have been declining. AAPOR even launched a task force and issued a now-seminal report on how the field will be forced to deal with this issue.

I anticipated much of the conference would focus in some way on this issue, so I was surprised by how many presentations focused solely on deploying new technology to give the entire field a boost. Presenters discussed topics such as how to use Google to help create lists for sampling and recruitment of non-standard groups (for example churches or dialysis clinics) and how to use satellite imagery and machine learning to determine if rural addresses have barns big enough for livestock. There was a clear interest in understanding how to incorporate tech—such as mobile applications or wearable devices—in order to get a more complete picture from surveys.

A Healthy Interest in Tech: AcademyHealth
A few weeks later I was on the road again, traveling to the annual AcademyHealth conference. AcademyHealth is the preeminent professional organization for those interested in health services and policy research.  Like survey research, these sectors are evolving. The aging boomer population, the U.S. opioid crisis and the increased emphasis on the social determinants of health are providing practitioners with new challenges. These sectors, too, have experienced some tech-based disruption but also have been looking at the novel use of smart phones and mobile applications for a number of years.

Having attended other AcademyHealth meetings I was prepared for some of the things I saw, such as the use of telemedicine as a tool to help hard-to-reach populations. But it was fascinating—if not surprising—to realize that the fields of health and public surveys are both digging deeply into the use of technology. At AcademyHealth, wearable devices and apps were a topic of conversation once again (for administrative health record data, rather than survey data). Ditto spatial imagery (used in this sector to explore health in relation to climate rather than, say, barn size). Which explains why the difference I noted in this year’s conference was that I talked to a number of attendees who specialized in tech. Like me, they did not have specific expertise in opioids, aging or public health, but they understood mobile application development and deployment.

From a professional perspective I’m very happy to join these other experts being brought in to “play in everyone’s backyards,” but as my colleagues in other fields build their own expertise, it’s daunting to know that I’m not the only cross-disciplinary expert in the room anymore. I anticipate that I will have to educate myself in some of these tech areas to be a better collaborator … and that will inevitably lead me to another fascinating professional conference.

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