Data entry has a bad rap, y’all. It’s universally scorned as tedious dribble, avoid/delegate-at-all-costs (by the way- those “costs” might be higher than you realize!), a mindless, thoughtless, time-consuming activity saved for rainy days, the bottom of the to-do list, or people who have too much time on their hands. Assigned to interns, volunteers, new hires who are being “hazed” with meaningless busy-work. You know what I’m talking about, yea? You might even have a pile of data entry that you are avoiding right now by reading this blog post! Permission to keep procrastinating, at least for the next 10 minutes.
Today, I want to offer a different spin on data entry. Suspend your pre-conceived notions and let’s go on this journey together.
This week, a friend posted on social media asking for data entry volunteer support for a political campaign. My eyes widened and I felt a bit of adrenaline, grinning at the overlap of time, need, and skill. I volunteered instantly and got started entering data from hand-written forms (shared via image over fb messenger) into a well-organized Google Spreadsheet. After about an hour, the three of us had entered hundreds of names and contact information, all poised for the next step of volunteer engagement and political empowerment. It felt good to see the list get longer and imagine all of the power and potential that could come from this nascent group of people. The more data entry I did, the more I began to feel inspired, optimistic, and connected to this group of people doing transformative work, albeit a few states and rivers away from my living room and my double-monitor set up. My fingers pounded the keyboard, but my mind lingered on each name, turning it over and thinking about that person.
Maybe it’s my longing for social connection that made this particular task imbued with meaning. Certainly, I do routine data entry pretty much every day… and I don’t think twice about it. Yet here I was, waxing sentimental about this list of utter strangers.
Many names on the list sparked memories of friends and family near and far. Seth… my childhood guitar teacher who teased me (in jest) about how difficult it was to unzip my instrument case. Cheryl… across the street neighbor in my hometown. Caroline … my partner’s student teacher. Cecil … reminiscent of my maternal grandmother’s name. Tammy … Ron Swanson’s ex-wife from the show Parks and Rec. Ok, I don’t actually know her but sometimes I feel like I do. You get the gist – names from these absolute strangers reminded me of people I care about. As I entered their contact information, I wished them health and prosperity. I let each name take me on a private journey. Who knew data entry could feel like a spiritual practice?
Many of the phone numbers had the same 3 or even 6 first digits. In most of my work now-a-days, this is unheard of. We don’t even look at area codes as much because our phones auto-suggest locations of the caller. But in my hometown of one square mile (which apparently I am feeling nostalgic about…), it was common to tell someone just the last 4 digits of your landline, since you could infer the rest from context clues. After the shared area code, most phone numbers started with 298 or 291.
Lest you label me a Luddite, I don’t really yearn for the days of 4 digit phone number swaps. I’m happy as a clam with digitally saving complex strings of numbers in my phone and only searching by name. The only phone numbers I have committed to memory are my parents, childhood landline, sibling, and partner – and his only because I write it on doctor forms as my emergency contact. However, there was something so intimate about typing all of these numbers of people who are, loosely speaking, neighbors, if not acquaintances, that gave me pause.
My co-conspirator Emily tells a story about an organization they worked with that under-valued data entry. One way this showed up was attributing the success of receiving a big donation to the person who took the donor to a ball game, rather than the person who made a note in the database that the donor loved the Mets. I’ve told this story many times, a sort of parable that betrays my secret goal of re-valuing data entry as a critical, shared-responsibility, worthy-of-praise function, not just an assignment for the person who drew the shortest straw.
“Ask your fundraisers to do data entry even if they despise it,” I can imagine myself saying. “It’ll pay off down the line, trust me!”
For the organizations that don’t succeed at the above, I may try… “Appreciate your data entry clerks,” repeated until my tongue resembles sandpaper. “Their labor makes your fundraising efforts possible!”
But here’s what’s missing from those pleas – the benefits for the data entry person of getting to care for each constituent. I should be careful not to romanticize this too much. It’s certainly different to do this type of work as a volunteer (sheltering-in-place, with a job that can still pay) compared to doing it day-in and day-out, underpaid and under appreciated.
I offer this reflection to folks who are using some quaran-time to face down their data entry backlog or finally untangle the “data junk drawer” spreadsheet. (No judgement if you’re not!)
Send some lovingkindness toward the people on your list. It’ll do you good, and might just be good for the world, too. If you want some encouragement, I’m only an email away!