Unexpected Combinations: OSPA Holiday Movie Rankings and Data Ethics

To kick off our holiday festivities in the Office of Strategy, Planning, and Analysis (OSPA), we did some of our own holiday movie rankings to discover what movies would be on our holiday movie watch list over winter break. The only rule, to begin with, was that OSPA team members could nominate up to two movies to be included in the OSPA holiday movie rankings.

Once all nominations were received, movie nominees were printed, and dot-voting with ranked choice values had begun. If a team member wanted to vote, they were each given three dot stickers with different values for ranked-choice voting. Green dots were worth five points, pink dots worth three, and yellow dots were worth one point. Stacked voting was allowed.

Home Alone was our winner with 27 points, followed by National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation with 22, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer with 21, and the Muppet Christmas Carol with 17.

As more people in our office voted, more discussions happened about what movies, what data, was missing from our collection. To adjust our holiday movie data, we started a list for movies that should have been included: The Christmas Story, It’s a Wonderful Life, Scrooged, Love Actually, etc.

List of movies not included in the holiday rankings with hand-written suggestions.

And some discussions about what qualified a movie as a holiday movie anyway. Is The Empire Strikes Back a holiday movie? Does a movie qualify as a holiday movie if it takes place in December – January? Does it qualify if it has snow? Is it about what time of year you watch the movies? Winter break really is a great time to hunker down and commit to a movie marathon like The Lord of the Rings trilogy—which didn’t make our initial nomination list but did show up in our, “I can’t believe this wasn’t included,” list.  Apparently, the Kenworthy Theater in Moscow agrees, scheduling an epic The Lord of the Rings marathon during the week between Christmas and New Year’s, adding some confirmatory evidence to our hypothesis.

Exploring Principles in Data Collection and Analysis

In OSPA we work with lots of data, but these small-scale data collection games or exercises really drive home what we know about data and our own responsibility—that the data we’re working with represents people. The data that we work with in our office represents our Washington State University students, faculty, staff across the whole WSU system.

And the same discussions that developed out of our holiday movie data collection are the same questions that show up in our day-to-day work. Is there bias in our data collection and processes?  What is missing from the data? Much like we are aware that the data represents the people within our university community, we’re also aware that we are human, too. That the choices we make are often influenced by our own bias, experience, and humanity. And discussing the gaps in our data collection, the movies that aren’t represented, and exploring what that might mean about our own gaps and representation.

Bar graph of OSPA holiday movie ranking points per 5-year increments beginning with 1950 to show which years had the most popular movies.

It’s been engaging to discuss and listen in on why some of these movies were nominated, the experiences that people have had in their childhood or as adults, and the movies they watch and why they represent the holidays to them.

The experience of watching television and movies before streaming, for a lot of the holiday movies that made their way on this nomination list, they would run at a specific time on a specific channel—a holiday movie special—and watching the show was a family event. The one chance you’d have to watch Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer before the following year.

When we’re talking about the experience of watching holiday movies: how, and why, and with whom, we’re already shifting gears from looking at the data to looking at why the data is there—the human elements and experience that influence what movies were selected and why, and the traditions that people create around them. The humanity within the data.

Happy holidays from the office of strategy, planning, and analysis! Wishing you and yours a restorative winter break and a happy new year, and maybe a chance to catch a holiday movie or two. Cheers!

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About the Author

Eija Sumner is the Strategic Communication Coordinator in the Office of Strategy, Planning, and Analysis (OSPA) at Washington State University.