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Making a Difference: Different views from WUSS

At the opening session, Randy Guard from SAS talked about making a difference. That sounded promising, but then the examples he gave were how analyses could be run on large databases of stock market data so much more quickly that instead of having market value overnight traders could get the data hourly. It sounded like the big difference was that it made high frequency trading easier to do and, of course, gave a big advantage to people who could afford SAS Business Intelligence software. His second example was use by retailers to identify when they should mark down merchandise to move more of their inventory. Well, certainly lower prices help consumers, although even that is not as simple as it sounds because if the long-term result is that the producers are getting paid less and thus cutting wages and benefits, the good is questionable. It’s, of course, also plausible that moving more inventory would increase overall profits and more people would be hired. I’m not saying that maximizing sales is a bad thing. What I am saying is when I personally think of making a difference it isn’t in helping Wal-Mart sell more at low, low prices or increasing the amount of high volume stock trading.

In her talk on what is new in SAS 9.2, 9.22 and 9.3, Maura Stokes mentioned PROC PLM. In case you don’t know (and really, why would you?) “The PLM procedure performs postfitting statistical analyses for the contents of a SAS item store that was previously created with the STORE statement in some other SAS/STAT procedure. An item store is a special SAS-defined binary file format used to store and restore information with a hierarchical structure.”

Speaking of making a difference, I can see where this could be really useful to the Department of Education.  A few months ago, I was in Washington at a seminar with dozens of other researchers around the country, analyzing the National Indian Education Study (NIES) data. Because the data are confidential and restricted, none of us could take the data home. We all left and then had to send in forms asking for access to the data and promising to lock it in a closet guarded by a leopard, or something like that. Just think how much more efficient we could have been if we had been able to output the model information using the STORE statement and then take that – aggregated, not personally identifiable – back home and do some more work with it.

I’m not against making money. I’m no Mother Teresa and I haven’t given everything I own to charity. On the other hand, it troubles me when really educated people focus only on maximizing sales and profits. I think that the attitude that there is no more to making a difference than making a buck as part of the reason our country is a mess.

I’m surrounded by really intelligent people and I would hope that some of them would apply at least a small part of their considerable gifts to making their communities better.

It doesn’t have to be selling your house and joining  the Peace Corps. I don’t think what many rural communities in third world countries need most is SAS programmers anyway.  It could be something as simple as contacting the Institute for Education Sciences and saying, “Hey, here’s a way that your outreach to researchers could be done more effectively.”

It could be coming to the regional users group meeting and talking to new programmers about how they can use open data to gain experience in more advanced and varied programming techniques while doing projects for their communities, ranging from analysis of education data to guest lectures explaining statistics to school children. (Yes, I am talking about that tomorrow, how did you guess?)

If we could focus, each of us, a little more on balance and a little less on balance sheets, I think THAT would make a difference.

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  1. There’s an open data movement in the UK too that Ian Manocha has been discussing on the SAS Voices blog. Demos, a think tank in the UK, has put together an interesting paper on the subject that you might enjoy. The title, I think, is, “The Civic Long Tail.”

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