The Data Matrix

How I started to navigate the complex world of numbers

by Lauren McKallor

Like a scene from The Matrix with strings of numbers flying everywhere, data can fill some people with a feeling of instant anxiety. But for me, I see answers. It wasn’t always this way. People often perceive numbers as an abyss of never ending pain. Sadly, this fear begins for many at a very young age. I remember the moment in my middle school classroom where I had my first math breakthrough and how excited I got. All of my classmates looked at me strangely as I rambled off my revolutionary discovery: using algebra to figure out how many CDs I could buy allowed me to maximize my allowance. Yay for more Hilary Duff CDs! That was the moment I realized numbers had something to say, not just to me, but to everyone. And I am here to tell you it IS possible to understand data and it is not hard to start.

After many years and millions of rows of data, I’ve come to believe that the real trick to understanding numbers is feasibility. People who are afraid of numbers might open an Excel file, look at how many rows there are and then quickly close it. What I do is take one tiny little column header at a time. Then I ask myself, does this make any sense? Is it possible?

I learned the lesson of feasibility the hard way after hundreds of hours of work. My first job out of college was Catastrophe Modeler for a reinsurance brokerage firm. I would model insurance companies’ risks for different events such as hurricanes, earthquakes, etc. The end goal was to make sure the insurance companies would have enough capital in any given loss scenario to pay their customers. When I got my first major client — Florida Keys school system — I could not have been more nerd excited. I was diligent, precise and obsessive about making sure the data was the best it could be before putting it into the risk calculator model. After letting it run for many hours, the numbers appeared before me. I was dumbfounded. The model told me the school system’s losses were 5 times the initial value of all of the assets. But was that feasible? Heck no! And so, digging in, I figured out that the silly computer model had put the school system underwater. Not “in debt” underwater – literally under the ocean. In one sense the computer was correct, that would indeed make it expensive to rebuild.

That’s all numbers are doing: guiding you to the truth the best they can. If the numbers are not feasible to begin with, of course you’re going to get weird answers from it. So when you next encounter a massive Matrix-like data set, take a deep breath before you dive in. Don’t worry. The water’s fine.