Susan Kistler on Real Time Reporting When the Lights Go Out

My name is Susan Kistler and I am the American Evaluation Association’s Executive Director and aea365’s regular Saturday contributor. Except, today is Sunday, because Friday and Saturday brought snowfall for the record books and here on the Southcoast that snow came with 40 mile per hour sustained winds and gusts far exceeding that. Power outage in our area and neighboring towns exceeds 90%. I am blessed to live on a campus with backup generators providing heat in some buildings and the capacity to serve warm meals in the dining hall, even as I sit typing this via candlelight.

We’re all glued to charged mobile devices and the our electrical provider’s online outage map with near real-time updates on customers affected by the storm. See the swath of black at the shoulder of the flexed arm that is Cape Cod? That’s where we live and work, in the section marked 91%-100% affected. A lack of electricity provides plenty of time to reflect on lessons learned beyond ‘keep plenty of spare batteries on hand’.

NSTAR Outage Map

Lesson Learned for Reporting:

  • For those who are information starved, any information is seductive. People are trying to make decisions from the relatively mundane (do I eat the ice cream before it melts) to the fundamental (do I move to a shelter today because it is 40 degrees and dropping in my house and it is difficult to keep the kids warm).
  • Not knowing what came before, limits data quality for decision-making. The outage map provides a snapshot in time, but no history. We gather round, trying to remember if the next town over has changed color from the last time we looked as a hint as to whether the repair trucks are headed this way.
  • Aggregating data illustrates trends but may provide little guidance for those seeking to make decisions on the individual rather than the systemic level. Knowing that your town will likely have full power restored by Thursday is of little use in understanding when power is coming to your street and your home.
  • Information is of little value without context. Like in social programs, we’ve learned that in some cases, one major fix can improve prospects for thousands of families and yet for others it can take multiple line repairs to work down a single street to the house at the end.

Lesson Learned for Life: I am thankful to everyone, from the linemen working to restore power to the kids who are helping to dig things out to the townspeople asking one another ‘how can I help’ and ‘do you need a hand.’ All is well in the grand scheme of things. We’re safe, sound, and gaining a newfound appreciation for the art of conversation.

[update, today is actually Tuesday – I thought that I had gotten this posted on Sunday, but the adventures of posting from one’s iphone are not to be understated, so this is backdated! The electricity has returned and we’re digging out.]

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