Tell Me What You Want

When I was younger I read the story of the three vinegar tasters in “The Tao of Pooh“.   What does vinegar taste like maybe a question for a cooking class, but as a researcher, its relevance is more important as “why do people need this information”.    Everyone who is asking a question does so for many reasons, but they can be grouped into some very large clusters:

  • information to impress (everyone wants HUGE numbers),
  • wisdom to inform a decision maker (help make a decision), or
  • to satisfy a program requirement (support a decision already made).

As a researcher, people come and ask you for a question to be answered.  The challenge is you may have to help them ask the correct question, which sometimes they may not understand why formulating their request remains a critical step for a successful study.  In the short story, “Ask A Foolish Question”, by Robert Sheckley, there is a machine capable of answering any question, named the “Answerer”. The problem is that people asking do not know as much as the computer (or in some cases, the researcher’s knowledge on the topic).  The Questioner must know something about the answer for the Answerer to provide the correct information.  In some ways, every researcher must learn how to pass on information, but they must also inform the people asking the question to help them both format their question and understand the answer.  (Richard Feynmn  would argue if you can’t explain it to a five-year old, do you really understand the topic?)  Sometimes people feel like Ralph where there is too much ambiguity to even phrase the question.

In helping people frame their research, often we simply have to listen, asking them what they want and how will they use the information.  Oftentimes this becomes a collaborative process between the answerer and the asker.

With the advent of the internet, many assume the information they seek is readily available, often ignoring the work and effort it takes to transform data into something useful,  This failure to understand could lead to the discounting of the work associated with exploring the question, assisting in organizing the research, and providing a satisfying answer. So, please a little patience goes a long way for everyone to agree on how vinegar should taste.

Buying a Cup of Coffee – Data Becomes Wisdom

The Ancient Mariner could have as easily said “Data, Data, everywhere”,  as discussions regarding big data and other analytical approaches seem to be the order of the day Wall Street Journal.  We often make data out to be this mysterious element, but data requires context to be useful to anyone if they intend to make a decision, as I hope to show below.  For example, data becomes information when it is categorized, which then becomes intelligence when a decision can be made, and ultimately wisdom when an action occurs based on intelligence.

One of my favorite quotes about Coffee comes from Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgor, who said that the perfect cup of coffee should be: “Black as the devil, hot as hell, pure as an angel, sweet as love.”  I would agree that a good cup of coffee is a bargain at any price, so let’s think about how the decision to buy a cup of coffee can explain transforming data into wisdom.

The objective:  I would like to purchase a cup of coffee at Giddyup Coffee in Folsom, LA.  So, I asked the two baristas if I could do take a few pictures for this blog post.  They thought it funny that someone would actually do this, but they agreed.  So, the research question is: do I have enough loose change to purchase a cup of coffee.



Loose Coins – represent Data

There will be a cost of purchasing a cup of coffee, so I look into my coin purse.  These loose coins are simply data points, each representing a certain value.  (Coins contain other information, such as their size, year and place it was minted, as well as the coins condition based on circulation.  These data points are not relevant for this purpose are ignored.) However, beyond knowing that I have coins, I do not know if these coins are enough to purchase a cup of coffee.






Information:  The loose coins now need to be organized before I can actually make a decision, so the coins were put into different categories.  This act of putting the coins into categories, based on the relative value of the coins, resulted in the data about the coins becoming information.

Data becomes Information

Intelligence:  Now that I know the relative value of the coins, I next have to make a comparison.  Do I have enough to actually purchase the coffee with the coins that I have?  So, I add a new data element, namely the posted value of a cup of coffee.  So, the addition of the information posted on the menu allowed me to determine if I could make a purchase with my loose change.

Wisdom:  I bought the cup of coffee, once I had enough intelligence to make a decision based on the cost of the cup of coffee and my loose change.  (Wisdom is the only attribute with a future component, namely, data, information, intelligence are all static elements at the moment a decision is made, but Wisdom will influence my future actions.)


I learned this paradigm as the more formal DIKW: Data, Information, Knowledge, Wisdom.  While one could argue that the DIKW is based upon filtering data to make a decision, I changed Knowledge into Intelligence.  I see Knowledge represents a broad body of information, based on many factors, including not only the data itself but the cultural, contextual relationship of the researcher to the topic being researched.  For example, I could have taken the coins to a Coinstar or a bank, or made a different decision concerning these coins.  For my father who abhors coffee (his loss), the research question (can I purchase a cup of coffee) would mean nothing to him,  (much like saying “what does that have to do with the price of tea in China?”!)  For me, knowledge serves not as a filter of the data/information as normally discussed in the DIKW paradigm, but rather a filter through the act of transforming data to wisdom can even occur.

Finally, we can not remove the researcher from the research, but a good researcher should understand what data elements are useful to become transformed into intelligence based on understanding what answer is required.

Here is a toast to your health!


Defining Mississippi’s Transportation System

On Tuesday, October 30, I had the privilege of attending/presenting at the 2018 Mississippi Transportation Institute Conference.  There were many great speakers, including a thoughtful Tim Flick, who spoke on leadership, and the energetic Janie Waters, who discussed change while leading everyone in the Hokie Pokie.  With so many quality presentations, I was honored to have been invited to speak, much less during lunch.  After being introduced by Northern District Commissioner Mike Taggert (in my opinion, a great asset for the State of Mississippi), I presented the following presentation.  ( my presentation: lambert-MTI 2018)

Defined transportation as a benefit:

  • to passengers and users,
  • to support the economy through freight movements,
  • to other sectors in the Mississippi economy.

Often, these benefits are not linked to the role that the transportation system serves an integral part of the state’s commitment to its citizens. The average citizen benefits from a robust highway system, as transportation makes our modern life accessible, but the system does have a direct cost, such as through taxes, or indirect costs, such as closed bridges, vehicle damage, etc., to the citizens of Mississippi.

Here are some of the references I used in preparing my remarks:

Southern Legislative Conference Comparative Data Reports on Transportation 2018 Report
Mississippi Department of Transportation Statewide Transportation Plan Mississippi Department of Transportation Fiscal Year 2017 materials
Mississippi Department of Transportation Freight Plan

1987 was the last concerted effort in Mississippi for a comprehensive statewide highway network program, which was the same year I graduated from Louisiana State University.  Since that was also the last year the State raised the gas tax, I am paying the State of Mississippi the same per gallon of gas from when I drove across the state after my graduation in 1987 as I did this week when I purchased gas to drive to the conference.

The problem is not one of identifying projects, but in securing funding for these projects,  While the state has recently taken steps to address this need, it took shutting down bridges to get some attention on this issue.  Maybe the citizens of Mississippi just need to eat more Domino’s Pizzas to fix the state’s potholes!