OTCD Is Not a Company; It’s a Design Approach

Over-the-counter data (OTCD) is not a company or a product. It is a research-based design approach any data system or report can follow to help users accurately and easily interpret data. The OTCD Standards – which are a synthesis of over 300 studies and other expert sources informing the best ways to communicate data – include best practices for data visualization and other means for supporting data users.

Though originally written for the field of education, the standards can be applied in any field, as the studies that informed the standards were conducted in a variety of fields. However, the education field illustrates how complicated data use can be, even for the highly educated. For example, a national study of school districts known for exemplary data use found teachers showed difficulty with question posing, data comprehension, and data interpretation, with teachers drawing correct inferences from data in only 48% of instances (U.S. Department of Education Office of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development, 2009). Educators are generally highly intelligent and highly educated, so we need to consider how the tools they are using can do a better job supporting them.

While most data systems and displays are simply "showing the data," there is so much more they can do to help users understand the data so no one is hurt by misunderstandings. Inspired by the varied ways in which over-the-counter medicine supports the successful use of its contents, OTCD was devised by Dr. Jenny Grant Rankin, Ph.D., in 2010 to summarize and organize research (over 300 studies and other expert sources, as published in one of her 2016 books) on how data systems and reports can better support users in the understanding and use of their data contents. OTCD involves embedding data interpretation support directly within reporting environments via 5 components, each with its own set of standards: Label, Supplemental Documentation, Help System, Package/Display, & Content.


Quick Analogy

It helps to understand the analogy that inspired OTCD, and how it was applied to help educators using student data. When you buy over-the-counter medicine, does it bear an otherwise blank label that merely reads, “Cold” or “Flu”? Of course not. While a doctor is not present to explain the medication’s purpose, ingredients, dosage instructions, and dangers, any remedy you buy in a store comes with a detailed label outlining these matters. Just as it would be wrong to board up pharmaceutical aisles in stores and withhold basic medicine from people who are not receiving it directly from doctors’ hands, it would be equally ludicrous to rip the labels off over-the-counter medications, leaving people with no way to use them wisely.

The notion of providing a potent product without proper guidance relates to the data reporting with which most people are having to make do. For example, educators use data, combined with their professional expertise and judgment, to ‘treat’ students, given the many proven benefits of student data. Most of them acquire this data in the form of reports generated within a data system and most analyze this data while alone. However, when it comes to using data such as student achievement data, institutions are operating without the data-equivalent to over-the-counter medicine. This is because the data systems and reports through which people are analyzing data typically do not provide supports (or enough supports) to help them understand how to use the data properly. Thus people are essentially opening data bottles with no labels, and swallowing the contents nonetheless, because the reports and data systems offered to them provide no better alternatives.

Over-the-Counter Data Components

Since so many data systems have the basics covered, what should their next milestones be? Data systems and data displays should aim to offer OTCD, which contains 5 components designed to increase the accuracy with which people interpret the data being displayed (click the image for a more extensive, full-sized document):

Over-the-Counter Data Standards & Research

All OTCD Standards are summarized within a packet. The research behind the standards was published as a book:


Best Way to Learn Specifics

Recorded presentations on OTCD are available online. For example, visit this site's Presentations page to download and watch recorded presentations crammed with OTCD standard-specific details. Dr. Rankin's TED Talk at TEDxTUM is particularly recommended for an introduction and overview.