your doctor makes a medical decision about your treatment – it’s based on data.
When you determine you need to leave at 7:45am to get to your destination on
time, that decision is based on data. What college you go to – again, it’s all
based on data.
So, why do so many people ignore data and see it as not relevant to them or their lives?
As I explored with best-selling author, Malcolm Gladwell, on the latest episode of Data Brilliant, you have to find a reason for people to want to interact with data. Because, for the most part, it’s not that people aren’t able to work with it – it’s that they don’t see the purpose or get excited about it. And, as Malcolm and I discussed, that’s what we need to change.
As someone who has made a career out of analyzing data and using it to make meaning out of a variety of social and scientific phenomena, Malcolm had plenty of stories of where data can make a real impact on our daily lives. Not just in business but in teaching, sports, policing, travel and healthcare – to name just a few.
Let’s take our discussion on sports as an example. The world of sports has become incredibly sophisticated in its understanding of data, and this has ultimately transferred to fans – both young and old, and from all areas of the world. As Malcolm quite rightly explained, if you asked the average 12-year-old basketball fan whether they like math, they’d probably say no. But then you see them talking about and digging into the statistical intricacies of a basketball players performance – from the true shooting percentage to the wins above replacement. This is all math; it’s all data, and they get it. Not only do they get it – they like it and are good at understanding, analyzing and arguing with it. They’re data geeks – they just don’t realize it.
That’s what we need to get to – we need to tell stories that highlight the real-life impact of data. That’s exactly what Malcolm has done throughout his career, and it is something that many within the data industry need to do more of. As data professionals, we need to become more adept at creating hooks and stories that get people excited – to tell the story first and back it up with the data second. Not the other way around.
But, as many of us know, to get to these great stories and to show examples of intelligent uses of data, it’s not just about having access to data, but having access to the right data, and asking the right questions of it. What’s motivating the data collection? Do I have all the data or only part of it? What assumptions underline what data was gathered?
Because, as Malcolm and I discussed, if you don’t have the right data and ask the right questions of it, it can lead you to make wrong decisions – and, at times, even dangerous ones.
So, first we need to motivate people and get them interested in data. Then, we need to teach people how to work with this data and use it to improve their lives. That sounds big and lofty – but it doesn’t have to be – it can be as simple as helping you choose who’s on your fantasy football league.
For the most part, data touches every single thing that we do, so it’s in our own interests to learn how to use it and make the most of it.