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The Ultramarathon of Data Literacy

Jordan Morrow, Global Head of Data Literacy, Qlik


The journey toward a data literate society is an ultramarathon, not a sprint.

There we were, around mile 90 of the famous Leadville 100-mile ultramarathon, somewhere around 1:00 AM or so, sitting in the May Queen aid station, watching and listening to the rain come steadily down as it hit the aid station tent. My friend had made it 90 miles in a race that had a 50% did-not-finish rate, and I was there ready to ensure he made it to the finish. After the stop at the aid-station and as the rain got harder, we knew it was time to complete the journey and we headed out into the cold and rain. I had been with him since mile 76 and it was my job to help him finish the race, hit his target goal of a sub 24-hour finish, and receive the coveted gold-belt buckle. As we ran, the rain got harder and then subsided, and we kept pushing on, trying to hit the finish in his goal time. To find out if my friend made his goal, read on.

As one contemplates what it takes to finish an ultramarathon, I begin to think about what an enormous effort it is and what others may find as equally daunting a journey. Being it my background, I think about what it takes develop and implement data literacy programs and initiatives in an organization. Ultramarathons involve perseverance, a lot of training and miles, good nutrition, planning, vision, an unrelenting drive, and more. When we think of the power that data literacy brings to individuals and organizations, the proper implementation of a data literacy initiative is paramount. It too involves perseverance, a lot of training, good planning, vision, and more. Let’s look at the parallels between running an ultramarathon and implementing a data literacy program, with success being a ‘finish line’. I put this in inverted commas because just like an ultramarathon, there truly isn’t a finish line. Yes, you cross the finish line and complete the race, but then you move on to the next adventure and challenge.

While data literacy will have many milestones that feel like finish lines in races, data literacy is an ongoing challenge that we take on to improve our skills. Here is my list:

  1. When we try new things, we will struggle and hit road bumps. Ultramarathons hit a trail runner with many road bumps to overcome, with some being unexpected. The key is to push on. While we learn new skills within data literacy, such as data storytelling or asking strong questions, it is inevitable we will hit obstacles along the way. Try to remind yourself this moment in time will pass. Overcome these obstacles and continue to grow!
  2. Failure is a friend! We will experience failure as we continue to improve our data literacy skills. Take the time to learn and not panic from it. One of my favorite quotes, that I use frequently, comes from Nelson Mandela: “I never lose. I either win or I learn.”
  3. Utilize your experience and skills and help others to truly succeed. At Leadville 100, I had the opportunity to pace and crew my friend. To pace means to help my runner keep the pace up as he suffered through painful and long miles, even as his body rebelled against him. To crew means helping your runner with the needs they have with nutrition, aches and pains, equipment, and basically all their needs. We need to be willing to help those who are trying to succeed within this world of data literacy. In an ultramarathon, this may mean doing things at times that are not convenient, like pacing through the night. In data literacy, be willing to do things that may seem inconvenient.
  4. Just as runners seek help from pacers and crew, we who are looking to improve our data literacy should seek help and advice from “helpers”. There are many who have skills we do not have, don’t be afraid to ask and utilize their help

Overall, there are many parallels to the world of data literacy and ultramarathons. The key is to keep on keeping on and push yourself to the finish. As I circle back to my friend’s story, he pushed hard and finished in sub 24-hours around 23 hours and 43 minutes. With that, a strong feeling of joy, peace, and satisfaction came over us. That same feeling can come to us as we develop and empower ourselves and others within data literacy, ensuring we are strong and positioned well to succeed in the analytics and discovery economy. Curious where to start on your data literacy ultramarathon? Start by reading about data literacy and what it is here, and then follow up by learning how to start your own data literacy journey with this learning module.