Data doesn’t create meaning, people do

9 December 2014

Written by ANDY BELL

Earlier this week I happened across a TED talk from Susan Etlinger, an analyst at Altimeter Group, on the importance of context in interpreting data. If you have 12 minutes, it’s well worth a look.

A number of things Susan said resonated with me. But none more so than the reasoning behind her call for more focus on critical thinking skills (the emphasis is mine):

“…we have a responsibility, I think, to spend more time focusing on our critical thinking skills. Why? Because at this point in our history, as we've heard many times over, we can process exabytes of data at lightning speed, and we have the potential to make bad decisions far more quickly, efficiently, and with far greater impact than we did in the past.”

It’s an important point and one that needs deeper consideration. People interpret data. And people, as we all know, are subject to biases and personal preferences. Susan goes on to say:

“…if I can spot a problem in an argument, it doesn't much matter whether it's expressed in words or in numbers. And this means teaching ourselves to find those confirmation biases and false correlations, and being able to spot a naked emotional appeal from 30 yards.”

Susan’s point is a timely reminder; to humanise data you need to go further than acknowledging that a person is more than the sum of their data points. As practitioners that work with data on a daily basis, it is incumbent on us to understand what we bring to the table that flavours its interpretation.

Because the data doesn’t create meaning, people do.