Behind the scenes of the Ace Community Survey

This article was written for the Carnival of Aces, whose theme this month is “Invisible Activism“.

My blogging notwithstanding, I often feel that my biggest contribution to ace activism has nothing to do with this blog, but is instead related to the Ace Community Survey. I have been involved with the Survey Team since it was founded in 2014, and I am currently one of its leaders. I started with a data analyst and programming role, but I shifted towards a management role, managing 10-40 volunteers, organizing tasks, and making high-level decisions.

The Survey Team has also had a big impact on my life. I changed my career from physics to data science in part because I knew that what I enjoyed was working with data, rather than physics in particular. And it turns out that my work on the Survey Team looks good on a resume.

I’ve talked a lot about Survey Team before, but the degree to which I have talked about it is not in proportion to the amount of time I put into it. Most people simply don’t need to know how it works. But in this day and age, our image of ace activism tend to be dominated by its most visible forms: fictional representation and social media activity. The Ace Community Survey follows a different paradigm. So allow me to pull back the curtain a little bit to show a different kind of activism.

The labor behind the survey

The Ace Community Survey has three major work loads: survey design, analysis, and survey reports. Each of these requires an immense amount of labor, divided across many volunteers.

Survey design is the part that often gets most people excited. We’re all conscious of the diversity of the ace community, and want to help make a survey that properly represents it. But you can’t just get a bunch of ace experts together to write a perfect survey. We do our homework. We analyze data from previous years, research other surveys, perform beta testing, and maintain detailed documentation of known issues. All this requires a lot of organization–maintaining a timeline, assigning tasks, and managing decision points. Basically, it’s Google Docs all the way down.

But if all we did was put out the survey, it would just be a feel-good questionnaire. So the next major undertaking is to analyze that data. We develop code, clean data, interpret written responses, produce analyses, create visualizations, and review review review. And often the people doing this work are not experts, they’re learning how to use Python, pandas, or Git, or else they’re learning how to code collaboratively. That means a lot of coding work is essentially learning and teaching! We don’t just advance our understanding of the ace community, we also advance the career development of our volunteers–a valuable goal in itself.

Improvements in code have an important but invisible impact on the survey. For example, early on in the Ace Community Survey we tried to avoid “checkbox” questions (a concept illustrated in my Cat Person or Dog Person survey). So, you could be “WTFromantic” or “panromantic” but not both. Nowadays you can be both (and I assure you that some people are). This wasn’t a change of heart so much as a change in programming. It was initially very difficult to handle data where each person could give multiple answers, so we avoided it unless it was essential. As we developed better code to parse and analyze the data, it became less costly.

The last major component of survey work is writing and editing all those reports that we publish. Our last report was 95 pages, and had 23 authors–I don’t need to explain how much work that goes into these, it’s all there! Between the surveys and survey reports, I know that the reports don’t win any popularity contests. But the reports are our major output, and they serve as an important reference for both activists and researchers. If you want to understand ace community diversity, don’t just absorb knowledge through social media, please make use of our hard work!

My role

I don’t do most of the work I described above; instead I tell other people to do it. I do a bit of everything, but the bulk of my work is running meetings, onboarding volunteers, making decisions and showing people how to get started on tasks. These being online volunteers, people drop out all the time. Therefore, I spend a lot of effort improving volunteer retention, and making sure our workflow is not disrupted by individual dropouts.

And then I have to weigh in on high-level decisions all the time. The most important skills are listening, and collaborative argument. That means arguing not in order to win, but in order to collaboratively reach the best decision. As you know, I’m a very opinionated person, but I always try to assess when I should stand my ground, when I should switch stances, and when we should live with our disagreements. I hope it is clear that I take the same approach to blogging.

And speaking of blogging, there are all sorts of topics that I blog about that are relevant to Survey Team decisions:

  • I know many people get exhausted with “pointless” arguments over language, but one of the reasons I think a lot about it is because it is directly relevant to survey design.
  • Ace and aro community politics are another topic that affects both survey design and analysis. I also play a minor role as ambassador to the Aro Census.
  • We used to blog more about international issues, and while it hasn’t been a topic lately, it’s always on my mind. While working on the survey, it is impossible to ignore that the US is only about 60% of the anglophone internet, and is over-represented because of high English fluency and internet adoption rates.
  • Keeping up to date with scholarly literature is helpful, because it can inform survey topics, and because the Survey Team frequently interacts with researchers.

In contrast, my personal narrative is not relevant. It doesn’t particularly matter what my sexual/romantic orientation is. It may have mattered once, but we’ve learned how to listen to more and more people, so that we’re not just relying on the particular experiences of individual team members. I feel this is worth emphasizing, since many other kinds of activism involve putting yourself out there, and worrying endlessly whether you’re a good “representative”. I’m here to tell you that for many kinds of activism it doesn’t matter–if you know how to organize or code or edit, you’re perfect.

All in all, I think the Ace Community Survey is a relatively unusual form of activism, but some of the particular activities might be more common than you realize. Managing volunteers, running meetings, organizing tasks, collaborative arguing and editing, these skills are important in all kinds of activism–once there enough people involved.

About Siggy

Siggy is an ace activist based in the U.S. He is gay gray-A, and has a Ph.D. in physics. He has another blog where he also talks about math, philosophy, godlessness, and social criticism. His other hobbies include board games and origami.
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3 Responses to Behind the scenes of the Ace Community Survey

  1. aceadmiral says:

    Thank you for your work and also for illustrating it so well so as to hopefully inspire others!

  2. Pingback: Carnival of Aces: Invisible Activism | The Asexual Agenda

  3. Carmilla DeWinter says:

    I was peripherally aware of how much work the reports are – why else would they take so long? I’m even more impressed now. Anyhow, thanks for the insight and all the hard work.

    (Note to self: Write something about how I used the Reports while working on the book that will hopefully be available in late January. — I’ll be by to brag about the book later.)

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