CIES first impressions: good people, bad stats?

This week I’m at CIES in Vancouver. I thought I’d share my first thoughts.

It’s a conference for people to share research.  The first thing I would say is that the people are better than the research. I see sample sizes that are very small – but when the sample is collected from people running away from home because of war, I’m happy to let that slide.  Control groups are ‘control’ in that they are getting ‘part’ of the intervention. But when the group is spread out over a country because they are following their herds, I get that you have to make some changes.

This is a set of people who care about making a change rather than really testing an idea,  and some of the talks are clearly by people who are yet to really buy into the scientific method. There has been at least one talk where the control group clearly outperformed the target group, and this wasn’t mentioned at all in the talk.  There is a certain amount of ‘I need to have a results slide, here is the results slide, now moving on…’

An commercial  exhibitor told me that the the software they sold to nonprofits was great because ‘You don’t need to know any statistics, you can just put your numbers in and get the results’.  I think I literally staggered.

For all that, There are some amazing people here.  I’ve learned about the lives of the people deported from the states, I’ve spoken to people who are working out how to deliver education in the world’s biggest refugee camp.  I met people who are looking at the issues faced when children learn English as an additional language, but who have no written form for the home language.  I was astonished to learn about how self help housing works in Nicaragua.

The people at CIES are at the other end of the scale to the people who go to Mozfest. At Mozfest I can walk up to a stranger and ask “What’s the cool thing you are doing?” and they’d know. They’d also tell you which github repo to get the information from and happily take you down to the full atomic level of explanation.  At CIES the level of thinking is vastly more strategic and almost entirely technology agnostic (bordering on Luddite in places).   The average CIES person I’ve met is interested in projects that are running in a few hundred schools and that are completely nontechnical.  But the passion is the same. Everyone here wants to change the world.



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