From monitoring global species extinction to checking the local weather on your iPhone, today’s world runs on data. Elizabeth (Liz) Allen plays an important role in compiling and managing data so that it can be understood and used by everyone else.
Allen, program associate at Virginia Tech’s Institute for Policy and Governance and faculty fellow for the Center for Communicating Science (CCS), has worked in the field of data management for nearly 20 years. During that time, she has focused her skills on a number of important social areas such as parenting, childcare, education, and transitioning veterans to civilian life and employment.
Allen specializes in the very beginning steps of the data management process: as she puts it, “Getting data from the ground, up into a more sophisticated way of looking at it.”
From gathering primary data in focus groups to creating tracking systems for her clients, Allen’s objective is to collect and process data so that it can be presented in an understandable and accessible way.
“To me, data is just a fancy name for information,” Allen says, “and information has been around forever – it’s what we need to communicate.”
Allen explained that data is being used to help people every day, not just on huge global levels, but in our everyday lives as well.
“And I have to say, the Center for Communicating Science is one of the best examples I can give you!” Allen exclaimed.
Allen tracks data for the CCS, wrangling all sorts of information about students, classes, and workshops, among other things, into forms that provide useful summaries at a glance.
Allen began working with the CCS a few years ago. She explains, “At first, they didn’t have a very systematic way of managing all of the information stored in lists, PDF documents, and Excel sheets.” Allen decided to create a system for tracking CCS students, programs, and activities.
“We came together to engage with the data and decide how we wanted it to be reported out. Now I can add data every couple of months so we can track how students are using and engaging with the CCS,” Allen says.
She also applies her data management experience with the CCS toward a workshop, “Storytelling with Data,” where she tells the story of the evolution and expanding impact of the CCS through data and in the process shows participants how data can be used for such storytelling.
In addition to her many projects, Allen makes it a priority to coach students, and anyone working with data, on good management practices and helpful tools. Her goal in her workshops and one-on-one sessions is “to provide some simple principles and data management tools that people can take away and use – immediately.”
Ryan King, a Ph.D. student in Translational Biology, Medicine, and Health at Virginia Tech, reached out to Allen for some help organizing and managing his data after attending her CCS workshop. King’s lab focuses on research to improve cardiac function by manipulating changes in electrolytes.
“With the type of experiments we do, we end up creating rather large and messy data sets. I remember showing Liz some of the Excel spreadsheets we were using that weren’t formatted in proper table format, and she was definitely a bit appalled by the early stages of our data management skills,” King said with a laugh.
Allen helped King develop some data management techniques through one-on-one sessions, and even traveled to King’s lab in Roanoke to give a presentation for the whole lab group on tips and tricks for working with Excel. King explained that not only did it help make the lab’s data more user friendly but also allowed his team to perform more in-depth analyses than they realized was possible.
One of the Excel tools Allen loves to teach is the pivot table, a tool used to help identify the most significant and useful information in large, detailed data sets. King stressed that “in the meta analysis we are working on, I really don’t know that it would have been possible without hundreds of hours of more work if we didn’t use pivot tables.”
Lara Nagle, who works with Allen at Virginia Tech’s Institute for Policy and Governance, pointed out that after working with Allen she “feels more confident properly storing, handling, and analyzing data and using pivot tables to craft useful charts, tables, and figures for project deliverables.”
She also dubbed Allen the “Pivot Table Queen,” as she has provided Nagle, among many others, with thorough instruction on how to take full advantage of pivot table functionalities.
“And most importantly,” says Nagle, “Liz always delivers her wisdom with a kind word and a smile!”
Allen highlighted that when she works with people on data management issues, she tries to help them work through the steps of problem solving instead of just fixing it for them.
“Over time I found myself interfacing and troubleshooting more and more with students — now I make it a priority to take time to actually explain concepts and why they work that way.”
Allen explained that students often aren’t taught basic data management methods and Excel tools because professors are so busy teaching the content in their area.
“But the thing is,” Allen says, “these simple tricks can save someone so much valuable time!”
She also indicated that tools like pivot tables shouldn’t be limited to researchers and data managers, explaining that being able to analyze and communicate with data can be useful for almost anything: “I even use them for my book club!”
While reflecting on her hopes for the future of data management, Allen said that she would love to see wider and easier accessibility to information and guidance on data management tools and skills, so that people can use them for their own everyday needs.
By Lauren Holt, Center for Communicating Science student intern