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’.


In the last few weeks I’ve joined the millions of people who need the support of something external to carry out their daily lives.

For me, it’s just reading glasses.

But getting my head around needing these, remembering to wear them, having to carry them around with me, has been a very unusual and disconcerting experience. (I’ve needed them for a while but ignored the need. Then I got them and hardly wore them. Then suddenly in SF a few weeks back my vision threw a hissy fit and I’ve been wearing them solidly at my desk since. And it feels better, easier, like it’s needed.)

Weird for me having to depend on something just to see properly.

Weird that if I left them at home, my work would be much harder.

As human augmentation goes though this is pretty pedestrian stuff, I know.

Two weeks ago I had a meeting in the same San Francisco office building where a Google Glass team is located. A guy had a pair around his neck in the elevator. A young woman had a pair on as she crossed the street as I walked away. As if it were normal (which soon it will be, in some parts of the world).

And then a colleague asked me to pick her pair up from our NYC office on my latest transatlantic trip. Sci-fi tipping into every day life.

All of this got me thinking about augmentation again.

Wearable tech has been hyped in the recent year as the big investable area. The new new. It makes sense to me that as the value that we get from the network continues to rapidly grow and the technology continues to rapidly shrink, we will all be augmented further – more than through glasses and pacemakers, more than by our companion smart devices and nearby screens.

For my own experimenting I decided to get one of those exercise band things too – a Jawbone UP at the advice of Drew Benvie and Stephen Davies.

It’s relatively humble experiment about personal data, about data and behaviour, and about augmentation.

The early signs are interesting. I walked further than normal today, because I was (temporarily?) more conscious of taking steps – the main currency the UP band takes note of.

I now have some data on my sleep last night, and my sleeping has been inconsistent with all the travel and time zones I experience at the moment. So that might be enlightening to observe.

But what is perhaps most interesting and indicative of the way things will go is plugging my band into my phone and seeing them talk to one another about my movements – me, the fleshy host, hot, stupid and inconsistent; them the cold robotic collectors of data, computing my movements, ‘motivating’ with colourful charts and smiley faces.

Me and the tech, as part of a little personal ecosystem.

So in the last few weeks I’ve found my every day self being a little more augmented. Both by need and by choice. And I find myself feeling that augmentation is an interesting part of the next phase.

And if all of this is a bit tame for you, here some further questions rolling around the back of my un-augmented brain:

  • What would it be like if my family all had this kind of data-gathering, and we shared our information with one another?
  • When will we go from wearing to hardwired, and why?
  • The feeling of becoming accustomed to a crutch, to something integral, is interesting – does anyone know of any models from academic research that describe this transition to ‘dependency’?
  • Can any of this help solve the great problems of our time and if so how?

Future of education: part 1

Like many people, I’m fascinated by how education is changing.

My dad is a teacher, my brother is a teacher, my sister works in professional publishing – the books she commissions end up as textbooks in universities.

Education is family thing, I suppose, though I was hardly passionate about education when I was in it – scraped through with half-decent A-levels, dropped out of a half-decent university.

I particularly love the work of Sugata Mitra. I love the Forest Schools ideology. It’s interesting to me that the school I went to, a state school, is now an ‘Apple School’ where every teacher and every pupil has been given an iPad.

So it was exciting to be invited by Facebook to speak at The Sunday Times Festival of Education at Wellington College back in late June. Just that combination alone had my interested: Facebook + Education + Wellington College (very old, well established public school).

Just arriving was an experience – Katie Price (‘Jordan’) was being greeted by Antony Seldon, headmaster at Wellington and a proponent of progressive ideas about the importance of teaching happiness at school. Ellen MacArthur walked past and then David Willets MP (I think). Not my usual crowd – I grabbed sandwiches and ran.

What was most interesting was how Facebook had partnered The Education Foundation, who in turned worked with two UK schools – London Nautical College, a proper inner city state school, and Wellington, an extremely affluent leading private school, to use Facebook in the classroom.

Hearing those two teachers, and those two groups of students, explain how they had experimented with using Facebook groups to manage learning projects was cool.

It was very thought provoking.

These were my takeaway points:

– both groups had found it useful enough that they’d do it again – that was a surprise to me, particularly – if I’m honest – Wellington

– both groups talked about how quickly the kids (who were teenagers) moved on from ‘fiddling around on Facebook and getting distracted’ to cracking on with work

– the kids themselves expressed how they were sceptical that they would be able to use Facebook without getting distracted but had surprised themselves

– Last surprise: how the parents hadn’t kicked off either, again I would expect that to happen especially at Wellington – perhaps people are more open-minded than I expect?

Surprises all round…

What I took away was another sense of just how much education is changing and about to change more. Methodologies, tools, practices, expectations, it is really interesting. Terrifying and thrilling when I think about my two boys who are in school.

And Facebook’s goals are absolutely clear here: they are interested to see how their platform can be positively used in education by educators and learners, and they are open about that. I have a combination of emotions about that: caution, curiosity, excitement.

I guess this is just another piece of this great big shift that we’ve been thinking about and exploring together for a while now. Digital transformation in education…

Digital Transformation

I just wrote this and put it on the NixonMcInnes blog, because it is talking about the work that we do and want to do more of, our current mission I suppose.

But it belongs here, too, with you.


We are at an interesting point.

The World Wide Web is nearly 25 years old. Google is about 15 years old, and Wikipedia about 12. Mobile phones have been commercially available since 1983, and there are now gazillions of them and not just in the developed world, of course.

This stuff has been around a while now.

Today Amazon no longer only sells books and running shoes – it now sells the building blocks of its own ecommerce infrastructure to others, it develops hardware in the Kindle and is developing an ecosystem all of its own. It isn’t sitting around, cosy in its little digital world. It is busy disrupting the status quo in publishing, entertainment, in digital infrastructure and in retailing,

Activists in Turkey, and before that in the so-called Arab Spring, now use digital networks to get videos, photos and notes about police or government brutality out to the rest of the world.

Here in the UK, an elite team called GDS is seeking to transform government digital services, attacking the highest volume transactional websites in the UK – spreading user-friendly goodness, bringing the best of digital practice to government departments, departments that ran the British empire for hundreds of years.

Communities that have never and will never physically meet raise funds for people in need on Reddit, through Kiva and to get projects off the ground via Kickstarter.

And my dad, soon to retire as a state school teacher after 30 odd years, has been given an iPad, as has every student in his school. What is education like in a world where every person in a classroom has a tablet at their finger tips? Where the greatest universities in the world publish their courseware on the web freely? (See also: Sugata Mitra).

This is the new reality.

You know this. So what. It’s all a bit yada yada, perhaps.

The point is this. We are at a point where digital practices, behaviours and business models are disrupting pretty much everything – education, business, politics, civil society, and so on.

And some organisations are natively digital – those we laud and congratulate loudly. “Well done Facebook!”, “Bravo, Twitters!”, “Go Mumsnet!”. And those guys are great pioneers.

But the most fascinating question for me is what will it take for organisations steeped in and born from the last century or before to make a digital transformation, when their successes were born of old models and practices?

That’s hard. That’s interesting.

Is it classic reinvention story, like Lou Gerstner tells of his transforming IBM from hardware to services in Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance? Can you achieve it through acquisition, perhaps, this digital transformation?

And in the end, who will make it? Now that’s going to be really interesting.

  • Will the US Treasury and the Bank of England move with the times, and will the dollar and the Euro still be suitable?
  • Will state governments resist a great atomisation, a fragmenting into digital tribes and physical small communities?
  • Will schools work more like co-working spaces?
  • And how on earth does an 80,000 person multi-national corporation transform when so much around it is in flux? Who will be on the inside and the outside, how will rewards happen, how will intellectual property be handled, what does leadership look like and who will the shareholders be?
  • And what is like to be a person or a team or an office in all of these places – what is like to have the ground moving under your feet, to have to adjust to things that are profoundly different to before, to be so challenged?

Digital transformation.

This is a big ask of us as individuals, with our habits and norms, let alone a big organisation.

Yet the challenge is we have to bring these large complex organisations with us. And what a great challenge to tackle, in service of a better world.

And it is tempting to divide these things – to see the rise of technology and the rise of a new business consciousness as two separate things, but I really believe that they are innately connected. That transparency, openness and the rapidity of the digital world is a powerful catalyst for the rise of employee ownership, for participatory leadership and new networked organisational structures. I guess that’s what Culture Shock is about.

That is what we’re up for at NixonMcInnes. To help positively transform the business world, with digital transformation as the catalyst.

Platform lag

I was thinking about the different times it takes me to respond through different platforms.

Things that are important and urgent get dealt with reasonably well – they have to. But for things that aren’t important and urgent, (but are often ‘important/valuable/interesting’) it looks something like this:

  • Twitter – within 1 day
  • Facebook – within 2 days
  • Phone/voicemail – within 2 days
  • LinkedIn – within 2-3 days
  • Email – 1-2 weeks to never
  • IM – don’t use!

What does it tell us? F*** all, I expect. Other than email is the bottom of the heap. I just can’t keep up. And I don’t enjoy keeping up. Somehow I enjoy keeping up on Twitter, and LinkedIn is fine too.

Issues this throws up:

  • People waiting for email get pissed off when they see me idly chatting in Twitter
  • I feel extremely guilty about the email – that people think I think I’m better than them, but it’s not that
  • That the enjoyment of a given communication platform might be a point of leverage for product/service designers

How does it look for you?