A Perspective on Data

Data is the currency of society. It’s everywhere and highly desired. Corporations pay whatever necessary to find out what they can about us in hopes of better advertising. Just consider television. Shows don’t exist for our entertainment; they aren’t cancelled because we lose interest. They receive prime slots and avoid cancellation by keeping ratings high, which allows them to sell advertising slots at higher rates. In reality, to sell us—the consumer. Television exists so we will watch the commercials. Politicians follow suit. They will pay large sums of money to buy data on potential voters. To see what we enjoy and what we don’t. Most importantly, data exists everywhere. Google tracks how long we spend in stores and reports it back without us ever knowing via cellphones. Waze tells us where to go but also collects average speeds for traffic flow purposes (and don’t forget, they too sell ad space). Your credit and debit cards create profiles of spending habits. Frequent shopper cards ensure you receive offers for products you are likely—or maybe not likely—to purchase. And, as you all have likely learned, Amazon works with other sites to entice you to come back and complete a purchase of your recent search.

 

Ironically, in an era where big government is viewed as intrusive, we seemingly hand over countless pieces of personal information to no-governmental actors. So, if all of this data exists, what can we do to make sure it’s used in ways to best serve our interests? It starts by asking the right questions. When the possibilities seem limitless, it can be difficult to figure out exactly what we want to know—let alone how we actually find our answers. In an era where it’s possible to manufacture new data from what we already possess (look no further than advanced statistical modelling in baseball), it can be even more trying to know what to ask. But how do we learn how to ask the right questions? It starts with being willing to ask questions you aren’t sure can be answered. If you aren’t willing to ask for the impossible, you will fail to push boundaries and gain full value from data. Then it becomes a matter of adding necessary specificity as you think through what you are trying to answer. Obviously asking the right questions is a skill you will build on over time.

With this in mind, my perspective on data involves:

  • An acknowledgement that we can’t unring the data culture bell. We will always collect and know more tomorrow than we do today.
  • A desire to help use data to improve our lives. Whether it involves targeted messaging on commercials, personal product offers, or self-guided learning plans, we need to appreciate the way data can be used to provide the most advantageous experiences possible for us as individuals.
  • A need to ask great questions. And maybe even more importantly the need to talk about how to ask great questions.
  • An admittance that the prevalence of data today isn’t perfect. With targeted messaging and experiences designed specifically for us, we are less likely to test our own boundaries and experience things outside of our comfort zone without making a conscious effort. If Hulu tells you what you might want to watch, you will be boxed in by their algorithms and might miss out on something you’d really enjoy.