Thursday, February 01, 2007

Reference behavior patterns and Data360

One of the aspects of defining a problem that plays out over time is to capture a "reference behavior pattern" (RBP). That's simply a graph of key variables over time. Drawing the graph of the RBP may help you spot patterns instead of just seeing events. It may remind you to consider a longer time horizon than you had originally conceived, making it easier to detect any pattern that might be present. It "draws a line in the sand," ensuring that your problem-solving activity is focused on a specific problem with specific data, thus keeping you from wandering off course. It's a fundamental start to system dynamics modeling.

Where do you get data for your RBP? If you think it involves public data, check out Data360, one of several new sites dedicated to aggregating and delivering up data on demand.

Tom Paper
generously gave me a tour of Data360 yesterday. As he described Data360, it's a tool we can use to create balanced scorecards of, well, anything we're interested in.

Data360 has lots of potential power. Here's a quick example to show how you might use it.

Let's say you are interested in the size of the labor force in the U.S.A.

  1. Go to Data360.
  2. Click on Data Graphs.
  3. Click on Civilian Labor Force United States.
  4. Observe the graph. Note the source of the data, the date it was last updated, and other pertinent information.

    Note that I've embedded the graph in this Web page. It's the actual graph, so it will always have the latest data that Data360 contains. I could have captured a static image of the graph, instead. (Update: after publishing it, I discovered I had to change the height and width to make it fit. Tom told me I'd have to do that.)
  5. If this provides what you want, you can click "PDF" to generate a PDF file of the page, or you can click "Generate CSV" to download the data in a format you can open in a spreadsheet.
  6. You can also click "View Data Set" to see just the data and its attributes. If you wanted to capture the data without downloading a CSV file and you have the Firefox Table2Clipboard extension, you can hold down Ctrl and then select the data with the left mouse button. Select Edit > Copy Table Elements. Then paste the result into your favorite word processor, spreadsheet, or editor.

How do you know if the data meets your needs? There are all the obvious questions, including:

  • Does it show the variables you want to see? Check the definitions of the variables used to make sure they match your expectations.
  • If it's a time series chart, does the time horizon match your needs? A too-short time series can turn a recurrent pattern into what seems to be a precipitious and on-going decline or increase.
  • Is the data credible? Check the source, and perhaps even check important data against the original source. Data360's Links page might help you, as might links on my Web site. As Tom said, calling on his CFO background: "Trust, but verify."

While you're there, check out Graph Groups to find graphs organized in groups to make them easier to find and Print Groups to see complete reports. Browse the data, too; you might learn something; I have.



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