Sources of Joy: Biking and Doing Data

I’ll come right out with it:

I love biking and analyzing data.

Being able to do both in a single day makes that day a pretty fine one in my book.

Yesterday was one of those times.

Due to the unseasonably warm weather-we’ve had four or five consecutive record-setting days here in Chicago-Dunreith and I were able to, at the earliest date yet, mount our bikes in the early morning and head off for the 12.5 mile trek downtown.

I’ve not biked since October and felt it in a number of ways.

Our tires were low, the chains need lubrication and I wobbled just a little bit when I got started. As always after it’s been a while since I’ve been on the bike, adjusting to the seat took a few minutes.

The biking wasn’t the only thing slowing me down at first.

I also felt the residual around my middle of the ample meals and delicious desserts I consumed during our family vacation.

That said, though, we made our way along Sheridan Road, through back alleys and the Loyola campus, and arrived at the Lake Shore bike path’s trail head.

The air alternated with cool and warm pockets, and the temperature  was definitely in a hotter direction.  In the distance, a portly ref blew the whistle to begin a Sunday soccer games with heavy quotients of Latino players on both sides. We proceeded somewhat slowly, chatting sporadically as we pumped our way past the fields of Lawrence and Wilson, past the boat docks at Belmont Harbor, and along the water and beaches of Fullerton and North.

I veered off to take the final stretch on Michigan, and Dunreith kept going for a while before returning home.

Although it’s taken me a while to adjust and I still don’t treat Friday as a Saturday, I have come to enjoy working on Sundays.

The office is quiet, other places are generally closed, and I can settle in and hammer on some data. This took a couple of forms yesterday.

I looked at some data that will be the basis for an upcoming series for us and generated half a dozen story possibilities.

I first cut my chops doing data analysis in 2006 while doing a massive school funding project at The Chicago Reporter.

Then-Senior Editor Alden Loury was my teacher and guide.

We’d spend hours thinking about various angles to consider and different ways to cut and think about what we were finding.

Possessing profound reverence for data, Alden always looked suffused with joy when he was working on a fresh analysis.  He emphasized data’s sanctity to me through a number of ironclad rules.

Always keep an original pristine copy of your data.

Never eliminate data from the dataset.

Don’t try to make the data say more than it does.

Always make sure the data are clean before you move forward with your analysis

Fact check your findings the right way.

Crunching tens and hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of records, can be a lengthy process, so there was plenty of time to build our relationship by talking about other important topics like family and basketball.

Beyond the rules and our deepening relationship, Alden taught me of data’s power to surface, and then help to explain, structural patterns of social inequity.

When I called him from the Rondout School District in Lake Forest and told him the old style brick schoolhouse was surrounded by business parks, whereas a school in Ford Heights had barely any business in the entire area, he told me we were going to seek to investigate if this was the story of two individual districts or the consequences of school funding policy.

It took an awful lot of work and energy, but we eventually figured out, in an original analysis, that it was the latter.

In my time at Hoy, I’ve tried to pass on some of the  possibilities Alden taught me.

Yesterday, I got some evidence that the lessons he gave to me are starting to take hold.

One colleague asked me a question about Tuesday elections, while another shared with me some data he had received from a local municipality that could be quite revealing.

We didn’t get all the way through it-I intentionally held off so that he would have some of that practice-and I could feel our excitement ripple through the air as we started to talk about possibilities and next steps.

I had so much fun looking at my own and my colleague’s data that I didn’t get out to buy food at Trader Joe’s for yesterday’s lunch until 3:00.

For those who don’t know me, my love of biking and data is perhaps only exceeded by my love of eating.

Yesterday, though, the call of the data was stronger.

Well fortified after the meal I eventually purchased and ate, I remounted my bike and headed back home to Dunreith.

My legs felt stronger than on the way down.  As I wove in between the joggers, roller bladers, and walkers, a smile started to stretch across my face.

I’m about to shower and, in about 45 minutes, will again nudge the kickstand up with my left foot, board my bike and set off on the trek to work again.

More data awaits.

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