Living in a data-drenched world

Is the world becoming more data-driven? Are people increasingly comfortable with using data to inform decisions? Or is it just a stick that we use when we want to, when it suits us?

I have occasionally re-told an anecdote I read somewhere, in an article about Yahoo’s CEO Marissa Meyer, that when presented with facts about this or about that she will ask to see the data. And what she (apparently, as I’ve remembered it) says is ‘OK, well let’s look at the data. But if you don’t have any data then I guess we’ll have to go on opinions – and if we’re going on opinions, then we’ll go on mine…’.

I haven’t told that second- or third-hand story very well, but it’s really about how that particular leader seeks to create a data-driven approach to decision making and it sets the tone for what I wanted to explore – the rise of data in everyday life.

The company I work for, Brandwatch, is largely a data-driven business. The original core leadership team are all pretty left-brain –  very numerical, big fans of spreadsheets, use mathematical terms for non-mathematical matters. A good chunk of the people in the company are software developers and so often come from that same scientific background, and of course the business itself is in the business of data – we process and store hundreds of millions of pieces of data and we also carve, filter, distil and visualize them beautifully for clients. Everyone in the company to some degree worships at that same metaphorical altar.

Since joining the company and operating in the role I’m in, I have noticed how I have become more data-driven. I have become more sceptical of loose stats and easy assertions and in my own way I’ve found myself pursuing answers in numbers, enjoying locating shifts and patterns, being shocked and excited when confident gut instinct has been entirely 180 degrees in the wrong direction. And although I already was, I have become an even greater admirer of those that can divine real insights from data – there are one or two people and one or two teams in the company who especially stand out in this regard, and they are legendary, sought after and coveted, like mythological creatures (OK, not really – I’m getting over excited).

So I am wondering about this in broader life. Is this world where data is increasingly abundant and available changing how we live as individuals and in society?

Is it good to be data-driven?

Data-driven itself is an unusual phrase isn’t it? A couple of years ago I was swapping career histories with a guy who was also a therapist (as well as a consultant) about ‘being driven’ and he pointed out that whilst a popular turn of phrase, it does also powerfully suggest that the individual is driven rather than driving, and to explore what or who might actually be driving (I think his point was that it’s very often parents who are the drivers). Applying that same such language-driven logic to ‘data driven’ opens up a peculiar but interesting idea – that these people and organisations are being driven by the data rather than themselves. Is that right? Doesn’t sound right.

But it does make me think about the modern phenomenon of the risks that I and others have taken on bikes to beat public personal bests which, after all, are just tiny little data points. And of that desperate feeling when one returns triumphantly from some kind of physical endeavour to find that one had forgotten to start the GPS watch / running app / or whatever. Who was driving who? What if the little orange iPhone app is the brain and I’m just the meat that’s frantically mashing the pedals? 🙂

It also ties interestingly to things like Dan Pink’s work on motivation and the up and downsides of linking rewards to incentives, although I probably need to revisit those to position them correctly in this context.

Wearables and personal data

Even before Apple Watches the ecosystem smart phones, their many lifetracking apps and activity trackers like FitBit and Jawbone Up have been starting to give us interesting and sometimes powerful and influential insights into our own little worlds.

I wonder how that will increase over time, as the sensors multiply (heartrate, blood sugar, sweat/stress, whatever else is possible) and what that will do to everyday life.

How will personal data inform relationships (‘you said you weren’t going to eat anything bad today!’) beyond how it already has through things like location tracking and conversation storing, and not only in the family but also with doctors, authorities, insurers, employers? That whole question takes me to some interesting and dark places. It makes me also then think about Incognito windows in browsers. Who’s tracking who? Who does this data empower? (See also: VRM)

Data in society

If this broader trend towards using data to inform decision making is indeed happening, you’d imagine that science would be having a profound effect on things like religion, politics, education and on hot topics like climate change or drug rehabilitation. But aren’t all of these things continuing to be weirdly devoid of ‘what the data says’ and instead much more powerfully driven by ideology, history and norms?

I would love to believe that we are somehow progressing as a species because technology and the internet have enabled us to be better connected to the truth (whatever that means) but it really doesn’t feel like that’s happening. If anything it feels like the internet allows us to find and hangout with the atomized groups who feel and believe EXACTLY WHAT WE BELIEVE, thank you very much. 1 billion silo’d digital villages. That’s a sad idea. Is that how it is? And if it is, how can we change it?

I’m drowning over here

Finally, it feels like just as businesses are suffering from data overload and breathe a heavy sigh when presented with the topic (yet again) of Big Data, so too will individuals. Don’t you already find managing notifications on your phone slightly exhausting? So many little demands for attention, so addictive and habit-forming. Multiply that by your smartwatch and your Internet of Things enabled home thermostat and smartcar sensors. How will we keep up? This for me opens up a bajillion interesting opportunities around dashboards, information radiators, filtering and curating – and something about the DIKW pyramid (!).

I think I’ll finish with a quote from William Gibson’s latest book. Like so many Gibson one-liners, it nails something very present about our challenge, and our opportunity too:

“I feel hindered by a surfeit of information, oceanic to the point of meaningless” – Lowbeer, ‘The Peripheral’.

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