Bigger data than ideas

We are all being measured in ever more detailed, unseen and uncontrolled ways. David Beer makes some excellent points on this topic in his recent blog here . David highlights the value of such data for immediate feedback and adjusting our course subtly to get better results in, say, our social media life. No argument with that and little likelihood of harm. But there is another angle to this which raises some quite serious concerns.

When we have a lot of data it potentially leads us to use the data, because it is there, without having a well-defined question to address.

In short,as a logical implication:

data > thought => problems

And it does not take much reflection to see that in the world of ‘big data’ that there is a quite high chance of having more data than thought . Also, in the world of austerity (and meanness, naturally), ‘value for money’ is ever more important and so the desire to quantify the things on which we spend our cash becomes unstoppable. What happens?

  • We start to commodify things that we can measure – trading and rewarding according to the most accessible, rather than the best, information – even when commodification does not make sense
  • We confuse the price derived for something (from these accessible measures) for the value of that thing (which may perhaps only be elicited through information that we do not have readily to hand)

In my work, across the private, public and third sectors alike, I am continually trying to break the cycle of desperate desire to (ab)use the data. I love evidence, and I particularly love really cool huge datasets that I can wallow through. But when someone pays me (well) I know well to rein in this geek-pleasure and I spend as much time as possible helping to shape sensible questions (yes, sometimes based on a geeky sprint through available numbers). Once we have done that crucial work together, I can then carry on to see whether we can find the numbers that are robust enough to answer those questions. Done well the result is that the work co-created with my clients can realistically contribute to some of the big decisions that leaders are concerned with.

But, all the time, somewhere down the road there are plenty of charlatans, both business and political, flashing around really big numbers coming from ever bigger data. But not stopping to think whether making decisions and building our systems and lives around this is really the best thing to do.

So, here is a take away thought – if you are not prepared to look at all your evidence, knowledge and experience to shape the questions you are asking of big data, you may as well just use the number 12.745, or £12.745m, or 12.475%.

Because that’s as good as the answer you will get in the absence of ‘more thought than data’. And I just gave it to you for nothing.

(Picture credit ozz13x)


About stuartastill

Consultant: interested in analysis that impacts politics i.e. everything! Can do difficult equations - but avoids when working with humans
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