In an increasingly data rich world, my role in public health has been to manipulate, analyze, and summarize the wealth of information available to me. I’ve learned SAS to make statistical conclusions and MATLAB to simulate the results. I’ve learned what information to search for and how to use it to describe a community. I thought I knew everything there is to know about data until I came face to face with the source. People.
Each day, I’ve been confronted by the harsh reality that I’ve been taking my resources for granted. There is no reference table that can provide the true barriers to preventive health services in the Rio Grande Valley, no Google search that can inform me of the responses I will hear. My only sources sit patiently around me; unaware of the answers I seek.
Within a focus group the unexpected is expected. Multiple conversations begin at once, leaving you racing to put each thought to paper. Digressions turn into shared intimate experiences and the most casual remarks can leave your jaw unhinged. The most astonishing replies can lead to the most informative answers but they challenge personal poise, stoicism, and self-control. The slightest break in composure can leave the participants withdrawn and streams of information repressed. Again and again I found myself adapting to conversation on the fly, battling my emotions, and approaching questions from unexpected angles just to get the quote we desired.
After the focus group, participants leave the room but the process is far from over. Transcription requires a careful attention to detail and sharp listening skills to pick out everything from subtle tones to the “umms” and the “ahhs” of speech. An hour of recording can mean several hours of translation from spoken word to written documentation.
The process of data collection is a long and arduous procedure but every second is worth it. Without this effort the facts and figures I’ve come to love would cease to exist and research would be limited to the biases of observation. Never again will I see numbers as just ink to paper. They represent the hard work and hours of engagement that individuals commit to a cause. Together, with my classmates and preceptor, I am confident we will leave behind a stronger community and a world richer with data. I can’t wait to see what answers we’ll uncover!