Primary questions & data analysis

by Tom Harbour

Data can help answer questions, but some data and some questions are more important than others.

The most important questions are the “primary” questions. These are the questions upon which we must focus and analyze the data.

Primary questions help to inform risks, opportunities, and opportunity costs. They help us evaluate current costs and future benefits (if any) versus current benefits (if any) and future costs.

The critical thinking related to forming those primary questions provides a fundamental basis for a thoughtful approach to disaster planning, response, and recovery. Engaging with partners to be reasonably certain that a few key critical questions, primary questions, are formed, is tantamount to “beginning with the end in mind”. We form primary questions, look at valid alternatives and choose.

Data to help inform answers to those primary questions is data that is of more significance than other data.

Partners in disaster management typically have different perspectives, but by focusing on a shared set of “primary” questions we allow each partner to have a positive influence on common strategic objectives. When Agency Administrators are engaged with the development and basic answers to those most important questions, the Incident Management Team is poised for success. When Agency Administrators, Incident Management Teams, and Responders all understand objectives, synergy results and optimal results are more likely to be achieved.

Partners often develop different data sets but to have better-informed answers and better-informed operations, we must reconcile the data and ensure that it can be used for a variety of purposes.

Data not only helps us answer the primary questions but it also informs consequences. Humans must still make the decisions, but they will make better decisions when focused on primary questions, and when using the right data.