American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections Fall 2015 CAREERS
by Shawn Jacobson
From the Editor: Shawn Jacobson has served as a statistician with the federal government since 1984. Currently he works for Housing and Urban Development (HUD) at its Real Estate Assessment Center, analyzing information on inspections of public housing and other properties to ensure that they are safe and sanitary. He has also worked at the Bureau of Labor Statistics on the Consumer Price Index (CPI) and on the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) survey. In this article he describes an early work experience that helped him launch his career.
When I tell people I'm a statistician, they either get a glassy-eyed look on their faces or think that my job is something like rocket science. People tend to believe we statisticians spend our lives looking at columns of numbers and doing calculations in our heads. I suppose that is what my vocational rehabilitation counselor thought when she told me that a blind person couldn't do such a job. Most people don't think getting out on the ice during shooting contests, dodging hockey pucks, or arguing with players about who scored a goal are jobs for a blind person either. Yet I had all of those experiences when I got my first taste of practical statistics as statistician of my university's hockey club.
It was halftime at an Iowa State University football game when I spoke with Coach Murdoch about becoming a statistician. He had met me through student government when he had sought student funding for the hockey club, and he remembered that I aspired to be a statistician. We started talking about hockey and statistics, and he asked me if I would like to be the statistician for the team. I learned that one of his former statisticians had gotten a job with the Chicago Cubs. Finding employment is something we blind folks worry about a lot, and a job in major league baseball sounded supremely cool. I decided to give the hockey club a try.
At the time, what I knew about hockey could most charitably be described as basic. I knew it was played on ice with a puck. I knew that players tried to get said puck through the opponent's goal, and I had heard that hockey players got into a lot of fights. Beyond that, I was pretty clueless. I tried looking up information on hockey statistics in the university library, but what I found assumed a level of knowledge I didn't have. Oh well, I decided, I would do what I could.
My first step was to find the Cyclone Area Community Center, where the games were played. The center was commonly called The Barn, because it had been a dairy barn in its former life. But where was The Barn? It was time for me to do some exploring.
I spent a beautiful autumn afternoon asking questions and generally wandering around. Finally I found a suitably barn-like structure on the south side of campus. When I opened the doors and looked inside, I saw a skating rink and bleachers. This must be the place, I thought. At least the walk, about a mile from my dorm room, wasn't beyond reason.
Next I needed to figure out which of the statistics I was going to keep. In class we were always handed nice, neat tables of numbers (spreadsheets, though we didn't use that term in those days) upon which to employ the tools of the trade. At hockey games, however, I would be in charge of actually collecting the numbers. I placed ads in the student newspaper offering free admission to anyone who would volunteer to assist me. These ads drew little interest; Ames, Iowa, was not a hockey hotbed. I would need to write down the numbers myself.
First I tried to keep track of line changes, noting who was on the ice at any given time. To do so I got behind the bench and looked at the numbers of the players as they got out onto the rink. As I was moving behind the bench, trying to keep my count, I heard a buzzing sound that reminded me of the time I was stung by a hornet.
"Watch out!" one of the players shouted. A puck flying at the speed of a car on the interstate had just missed my head by about three inches. I realized that the shields around hockey rinks are there for a reason. It was time for me to find something else to track.
Next I tried recording who won face-offs. I wore glasses that gave me pretty good vision in a really narrow range. I needed to watch something that would keep still until I found it, and the puck was pretty still before a face-off. I figured that whoever won the face-off would eventually start moving down the ice toward the other guy's goal. Even if the rest of our statistical efforts were incomplete, we always had information about face-offs. The idea was that even if I was wrong about who won the draw, I could at least provide the coach with useful information about the game.
This job began a relationship with data collection issues that has been a large part of my working life ever since. Knowing what information I would keep track of, I settled into a routine. I would go to the games and get a cup of hot cider. (You wanted something warm in a building that featured an ice rink!) Then I would head to my spot atop the bleachers at center ice. From this vantage point, I was able to watch some good hockey, though the team's performance was uneven. Coach Murdoch had moved the team out of a conference with a bunch of Illinois schools to seek stiffer competition. So the team played a variety of opponents, including other colleges, Canadian junior hockey teams, and local hockey clubs. There were many games where we won by ten goals, and a few that we lost by that much. In short, the team had to play opponents at several skill levels to get through the season.
At the end of periods, I would take my sheet with face-off numbers down to the locker room and hand it to the coach. I don't remember a lot about the locker room except that it was hot, damp, and musty. Hockey players jammed together on benches listening to the coach as he told them what they had done wrong and what they needed to work on. Once I handed over my sheet, I would leave the room and head back to my seat as the Zamboni smoothed out the ice for the next period.
One night I actually got out on the ice. My name was drawn for a contest where I could win a prize if I could shoot a puck from the blue line into the goal. I went down to the rink and stepped onto the ice. Haltingly, I moved to the blue line over a surface I had spent many an Iowa winter doing my best to avoid. At the blue line I grasped the unfamiliar stick, took a menacing swipe at the puck, and missed. At this point, and on my next miss, I knew the crowd was doing something, but I was too preoccupied with keeping my balance to pay much attention to the noise coming from the stands. Then, on my final attempt, I managed to dribble the puck toward the goal, but it did not get anywhere close. I left the ice embarrassed, but knowing I had given it a try.
The other part of my job was to keep a running total of goals scored, assists, and penalty minutes for the team and players. I would get the official score sheet from the coach and update the totals from before the game. For this work, I was able to use my CCTV system to read the reports on the game.
The task of keeping scoring totals seemed straightforward, but even this got me into an argument. On the way home from a game, the player who had given me a ride (by now the weather was too cold for a joyful walking experience) told me that the scorer had given the goal to the wrong person. He let me know that he, and not his teammate, had scored the goal. I brought this up with the coach the next day. He told me that the scorer's decision had to stand.
The two years I spent keeping hockey statistics taught me a valuable lesson that I have carried into my work life--which is very satisfying, even though it isn't as cool as being a baseball statistician. I learned that numbers are about something. Just as every goal is scored by a hockey player, every number I track in my job is about a person. Just as every statistics sheet I looked at told the story of a hockey game, so every analysis I do in my job tells a narrative about the human condition. As in hockey, my work with the government has been about making it count.