Our obsession with data – Symptom or Trap?

It’s hard to pinpoint when the word ‘data’ slipped into everyone’s conversation. Was it around the time we became aware that search engines were using data to understand user behavior? When data became their currency for pricing ads?

Data gathering amounted to accountability. data bestowed scientific accuracy. In some of the industries I used to be in, we had sexier terms: Metrics, and Analytics. (Combine the words to give it an aura of science –call it Data Metrics!) If you want to get more geeky, we also called some data ‘KPIs‘ – Key Performance Indicators. Today, hardly a week goes by when you don’t hear of Source Data, Meta Data..and the mother of all data we know as ‘Big Data’.  And  this spilled over to all other sectors. So it’s no wonder we hear phrases such as:

  • “So where’s the data?” ( “Where’s the evidence”)
  • “This is good data for us.” (Which used to be “this supports our point of view.”)

What happens when there is no data? If a tree falls in the forest, and and there is no data, is it lumber? Just asking!

What happens when you don’t treat people as data? My wife has been teaching Montessori for the past, say, 28 years. The Montessori method does not use report cards. No data files. No spreadsheet to forward to the preschool the student will move to. But on any given day, she has what some might call ‘data’ in her head. Specific ‘performance indicators’ about each student. Montessori teachers know exactly at what development phase a child is, whether he/she is moving from Number Rods to more complex math to grasp the units, tens, hundreds, and thousands. The child is not a piece of data, as there are more holistic considerations.

Which makes we wonder: Are we data driven or just unthinkingly data obsessed? Nicole Laskowski quoting a Gartner study, thinks we are the latter:

 Metrics and innovation don’t always mix. In fact, according to the analysts, having a singular focus on current performance metrics can create what’s known as “analysis paralysis,” where so much time is spent analyzing the data that a decision never gets made and risks are never taken.

It’s not the Tech companies’ fault. We simply assumed we could all run our lives like the Google’s of this world. Speaking of which, few know that Google’s founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin were Montessori students. I’m willing to bet that their teachers had absolutely no metrics to indicate that they would become the founders of a data-driven culture. Or maybe they did – they just didn’t call it data!


Google Street View in Sri Lanka, timely -as the ‘walls’ come down

I just wrote a bit of a cynical piece about Google Glass, but, as you may know, there is no shortage of parodies about this new, much-talked about product that will help people ‘augment’ the real world.

But my beef is not with Google, per se. It’s those whom I like to call ‘Shiny New OBject Syndrome’ types. You know, S-N-O-B-S 🙂

The point being, I question if we really need everything reduced to data, or meta data –basically data about data. Do we need an appendage that turns our analog lives that are inherently data-rich in human connections, just to bathe in digital?

In one of my presentations (when asked about Big Data in a Web 2.0 era) I referred to a person who told me how he was befriended on LinkedIn by an old school buddy. Great, he thought, and clicked the button! Then he bumped into the chap a day later, and the ‘friend’ ignored him. In other words, flesh-and-blood alums are so boring, huh? The data-based connection was what the person was after.

Oddly enough, I am planning an upcoming trip, and enjoying the data Google delivers – via Street View. It’s truly amazing how one company can basically index the world as we pass through it. One country at a time. So far Google, which began capturing Street Views in 2007, has 50 countries and counting. Included are Hong Kong, Thailand, Romania, Poland…

Sri Lanka will be soon in this group – reliable sources tell me. I could see why the tourism and leisure industry would want this. For businesses too. Imagine being able to drive through a bridge, walk up the steps of a temple, check out the neighborhood in an area you plan to set up a company etc..

Inviting this kind of visibility, also trains citizens to expect greater transparency in surrounding areas. The new data we will have access to would (and should) inform a nation’s business leaders and public officials to plan for providing data beyond the ‘Street’ level.  We should be able to drive by, virtually, and pick up data, and meta-data: forms, policy papers, constitutional amendments, meeting notes, speeches, parliament bills and voting patterns etc. Will these come? Well, look at it this way. In Colombo, the government has been strident in tearing down the physical walls around public places. Cynics see this is as part of the post-war beautification strategy. But even as we will be able to peer into the windows of an un-walled town hall or government institution, (while Google,simultaneously, begins to provide virtual views) the expectation will be for greater access.

It’s an experiment that many will be watching. (No expensive Glasses required)

Graphics, info-graphics and flat-out dubious statistics

I thought I loved info-graphics, until they were run over my marketing people.

Seriously. I used to find the art of info-graphics irresistible long before we they grew like weeds, online. The people who wee good at it were illustrators who worked for newspapers. Some complex heist, or a catastrophic event would be nicely compressed into an info-graphic in a newspaper.

Now there are so many info-graphics, I found this infographc about infographics!

But what exactly is an info-graphic?

It is usually used as a synonym of Data Visualization. But is it? The simple definition of DV is that it tells a story using data points. But it need not be a ‘graphic’ per se. It could be a dynamic time line, such as the Time Line produced by the Guardian, London. They created what seems like a nice graphic of the incidents of rioting in London in August. But it contains a slider that allows the reader to move through the days from 6th August onward, as towns from Tottenham to Ealing to… Liverpool reported incidents.

Here’s what it looks like. Click on image to launch visualization.

Contrast this to an Info-graphic, Big Brothers, about satellites that countries from Mexico to Pakistan to Iran have sent up.

To me the best info-graphic does these five things:

  • It summarizes a large volume of data in a snapshot.
  • It tells a story by helping our eye navigate complexity, and move between icons or illustrations that represent events, people, trends, hierarchies.
  • It is great at providing supplemental information on a page, when the publisher does not want to lose the reader who might turn the page, and jump to something else.
  • It provides a sense of scale, through visual tweaks, to explain something that might be difficult to comprehend, even with traditional data we cram into presentations (tables, lists, quotes, price points…) The orbiting satellites info-graphic above does a great job of this.
  • It provides direction, and relationships of where that direction might take you. The simplest info-graphic for me is the compass. I do not need to know the ‘degree’ of the direction, as long as I have the four data points. The best known inf-graphic in this category is the London Underground map.
So what then, is an info-graphic? To Alberto Cairo, an info-graphic specialist, and author of Infographia,  who teaches this stuff,
 “Infographics are difficult to define precisely because of their multiple and flexible nature….an information graphic is an aid to thinking and understanding.
He goes on to say that an info-graphic makes patterns arise, helps readers stumble upon trends, and it does this in a very small space. Because an info-graphic is so easy grab attention, especially in a world where few people have tolerance for long-form content (such as this post; sorry folks!) an info-graphic can be completely distorted and not get too mush scrutiny.

I am working on an article on just this topic. So if you have some examples -the good, the bad, the completely distorted– please leave a comment here or send me a tweet.

I will leave you with a great resource by Aaron Weyenberg. His post, “How to distort data” looks at the dangers that lie here.

Be warned. This is not a short form content, but it does have some cool graphics!

Quotes for the week ending 23 Jan, 2010

“We’ve got the Internet here at Signal, and it’s been a miracle that we’ve been able to stay on air … “Don’t ask me how we’ve managed to do that.”

Mario Viau, station director at SignalFM, in Port-au-Prince, which has been on the air and online since the earthquake struck..

“Because this is just a dirge. I’m ready to shut it off. And I’m sure there’s plenty other about to do the same.

Anonymous commenter on the Rolling Stone blog that live blogged the Hope For Haiti Now telethon. He went on to say that Live Aid “existed to raise money for a terrible epidemic. But the performances were more like a giant party. People were interested, and it was a huge success. This sad telethon will be immediately forgotten. And that’s a shame. Wasted opportunity.”

“Good attitude Mr. Anonymous. With a mindset like that nothing will ever happen.”

Someone going by the name of Jeff, responding to the above poster.

“We are experiencing an outage due to an extremely high number of whales.”

Message on the Twitter web site, supposedly after Haiti suffered aftershocks on Wednesday.

“It puts into the public domain every bit of information collected by public bodies that is not personal or sensitive, from alcohol-attributable mortality to years of life lost through TB. Happily, not all the data sets deal with death.”

Editorial in the Guardian, on the launch of new website, data.gov.uk, which Tim Berners Lee ( and professor Nigel Shadbolt) served as advisors, on the request of Prime Minister, Gordon Brown.

“News Corp. needs Google more than Google needs News Corp.”

Greg Patterson, attorney at Espresso Pundit, in Mike Sunnucks’s story on the battle eating up over the Fair Use Doctrine

“Yet, honest Abe and HAL9000, both had one thing in common. They conveniently applied a Heuristic theory as they were, in fact, the only one calling the shots.”

Steven Lowell, PR Manager, Voice 123, on why failure, and the ‘Heuristic Algorithm’ is a bad long-term solution.

Journalism is broken, ‘programming’ can fix it!

The “Journalism is broken” cry is not a new one, especially with the rise of citizen journalism, loss of readership and viewership etc.

So when a Journalist / programmer (an unusual combination of skills, don’t you agree?) tries to fix this crisis, it’s worth paying some attention. Adrian Holovaty has an idea of how to use the ‘data’ of a story to come up with a better narrative. Listen to him here

To me this approach is interesting not because I am a writer of business stories but because of where I work.

Data is the basis of every decision we make, whether we call it that or not. At the Decision Theater we take data and help create a narrative for policy makers to see what’s often invisible –either too complex to fathom, or simply buried in plain sight by a data smog. Data, once you connect the dots, could be used to construct scenarios. There is a whole lot of programming, data selection, data mining and layering at the back end. But the scenario shows up as a richer story. It is maybe about a discrete event, but it could have a wider relevance.

The news media is grappling with that same choices between creating the thumbnail or the sound bite versus giving people the context. Giving readers (and this applies to viewers, listeners, browsers) the former is easy, but like the evening TV news that packs a world event into a few seconds, the ‘story’ is crippled because it is data poor. The latter cannot be banged out on a word processor that easily.

The data-rich story needs a programmer’s mindset.