Reflections on the 2018 California Water Data Challenge

UPDATE: I am so honored to have won an award in the 2018 CA Water Data Challenge! You can view the wining project here.

After graduate school, I'll probably apply to as many jobs as I can and see what sticks. But deep down, a career that integrates my domain knowledge of groundwater and California water with the broad field of data science is what I seek.

So when the California Water Data Challenge was announced earlier this year, I was pretty excited. I attended the kickoff event in San Francisco to learn more.

Many months later, and our Challenge entry has been submitted! At the suggestion of one of my teammates, I'm writing a short blog post to reflect on the process and share what I learned.

What I learned can be divided into 3 lessons. These lessons were illuminated by this challenge, but I think they're general enough to apply to other aspects of work and life characterized by interaction with others, and a shared goal. They might comes across as banal platitudes, but common wisdom proliferates for a reason, right? The lessons I'll talk about in this reflection are:

  1. Less is More [when telling a story].
  2. Listen.
  3. Respect your limits–nothing is worth your sanity.

Less is more [when telling a story]

I learned this lesson from Meredith Lee, one of the organizers from the West Big Data Hub, while presenting some preliminary results at the California Water Data Summit in LA. I was showing her all of these figures from our analysis, everything from this spatial computer model, to some socioeconomic analysis of affected communities, and finally I brought out our half-baked machine learning model results. Meredith has a PhD in Engineering from Stanford, and she's a smart lady. I know she understood what I was saying, but instead she advised me to think about the story I was telling with these figures. I wasn't paying attention to my audience or thinking about what they would take away–I was just blasting every single one of our results at whoever would listen.

Science and storytelling are two separate arts.

From one scientist to another, Meredith reinforced the awareness that when I talk about my work, I need to think about the overall narrative of what I seek to convey, and to pick what results I present that fill out that narrative.

What do you want people to remember from your talk? How do you want them to feel when they leave?

Scientists (at my level) spend about 90% of their time “in the weeds” writing scripts to analyze data, and generating plots to understand what they're working on. When we share our work, I've noticed we can emphasize “the weeds” when what we really need to do is take a step back, and select the subset of results that tell an important story. Less is more. Focus on what matters.


I learned this in both talking to people about our project, as well as with my teammates.

When presenting a story to someone new, I always got further when I first asked the person what their background was.

An economist, city planner, and engineer will hear your message in different ways, and knowing your audience helps you build your argument on top of what they already know.

Before grad school, when I was a teacher, we'd refer to this as a form of “scaffolding”. The idea was that if you figure out what your students know and like, and relate new material to that, they're more likely to remember it, and you build rapport in the process.

When working with my team, I was continually blown away by how many smart ideas they had! When I saw a brick wall, I would talk about it, and poof! They had answers. In particular, I recall Amanda having such a solid understanding of census data, income level stratification, and spatial statistics. I learned a lot by listening to her. There were other times when I produced some results that didn't make sense to me, but by sharing them with Alvar and Hervé, they were able to see things I couldn't.

Respect your limits–nothing is worth your sanity.

Towards the end of our project, some of our machine learning models were giving us results that were very difficult to interpret. I was working into the night trying to make sense of it all. I was pretty stressed, and it was all my own doing! I was the one setting these unrealistic expectations for myself. My fantastic teammate Hervé and I had an honest talk about it, and he reminded me that nothing is worth your sanity. Then he sent me this great Slack message, along with this photo.

Now call it a day, go home, do yoga at home or work on your furniture project. Your brain is almost your only tool and you have to take care of its well being.

Nothing is worth your sanity. I'm all for pushing limits, but determination must be balanced by an awareness that consistently pushing it leads to fatigue, burnout, and dissatisfaction.

I'm pretty excited that our team saw this project through to completion. It's not about winning anymore. I'm proud of what we've done, and I know that the connections we've built will lead to future work on domestic well vulnerability in the state. It's also not every day that you do some science that might directly affect another human in a positive way within your lifetime. I feel this way about this work, and it's a good feeling. That alone makes it worth the effort.

View our team's project: Domestic Well Vulnerability to Drought in California's Central Valley.