What Data Cannot Tell us


“Subtracting your dependence on some of the things you take for granted increases your independence.

It's liberating, forcing you to rely on your own ability rather than your customary crutches.”

[Twyla Tharp]

If there is a silver lining in the recent media focus on the Cambridge Analytica misgivings it's the attention the story has kept on data mining practices by social networks and the unmetered use by organizations to target people. Market researchers have been using the same techniques for years.

    But there are things data cannot tell us.

Common practices

   Susanne Yada, a Facebook ad strategist says, “It was pretty common knowledge among people who understood the internet that if you were taking a quiz to find out what kind of cheese you are, somebody on the other end is very interested in getting that data. I wish I could say I was more surprised and more alarmed. I just assumed that if you take a quiz, someone would know who you are because you are signed into Facebook.”#

    A quiz or an assessment in the digital age is no longer just a novelty to attract attention, it's an entry-point for building a psychographic profile of participants. Do the ends of targeting ads justify the means? Harvesting data through questionable collection practices begs further questioning.

    Psychographic is qualitative methodology used to describe consumers on psychological attributes. It has been applied to the study of personality, values, opinions, attitudes, interests, and lifestyles. Which means cataloguing people based on sexual orientation, political beliefs, relationship status, drug use, along with other personality traits.

    Soshana Zuboff calls the us of data to spy on people and manipulate them surveillance capitalism. If people acknowledged the free services in exchange for data deal they made intellectually, before this conversation went mainstream in the public consciousness it was something not felt. Since we make most of our decisions based on emotion, feelings are important.

    We're now discovering that there are between 2,500 and 4,000 data brokers only in the U.S.# Credit Bureaus collect data on people from disparate sources, cutting deals with businesses, the real customers, to get files and records on people.

    In this sense, forgetting the smartphone home may become a cause for rejoicing in a bout of freedom from immediate recording eyes. In 2010, the Wall Street Journal published a series of articles on how organizations track people online and offline. What they Know won awards and was based on traditional reporting as well as detailed research by technologists.

Common issues

    Breaches expose information the other way. They shine a light on the depth and breadth of data gathering practices — and on the business models that rely on them. Awareness changes the perception of knowledge and its use. Anyone not living under a rock now is aware that we likely don't know all the technical implications, but we know enough to start making different decisions on how we browse and communicate online.

    Business models are the most problematic, because they create dependency on data and an incentive to collect as much as possible. Beyond advertising, lack of transparency on third party sharing and usage merit further scrutiny. Perhaps the time has come to evolve business practices — how platforms and people interact — and standards — based on laws and regulations.

    Our culture is the sum of behaviors and practices. It's not carved in stone, it's dynamic. Change the rules of acceptable behaviors and the incentives and one can change the culture. W. Edwards Deming's “In God we trust; all others bring data” has become a mantra — and technology God-sent. But we're still catching up on the consequences of exponential growth.

    Enter GDPR, which goes into effect on May 25, 2018. The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is a regulation by which the European Parliament, the Council of the European Union and the European Commission intended to strengthen and unify data protection for all individuals within the European Union (EU). It also addresses the export of personal data outside the EU.

    Six principles dictate responsibilities for organizations#:

  1. tell people what you're collecting, why, and how you intend to use it
  2. don't transfer data outside the European Economic Area without adequate protection
  3. each data point you collect needs to have a reason why (vs. using a catch-all collection form)
  4. citizens have the right to an accurate portrayal of their personal data, a controller must vouch for accuracy and its updates
  5. retain data only for its original use and length of time
  6. keep data secure and report data breaches within 72 hours

    Spring is a good time for housekeeping — opt-in forms, unsubscribe policies, but also records, cookie duration, security patches and so on. For example, MailChimp just went to single sing-in, but I kept my lists to double opt-in# for good measure.

Common knowledge

    There are many things we can measure and collect data on. Without sufficient information and knowledge of context, we end up missing the mark, not to mention focusing solely on what we measure. Do we measure the right things? Do we take into account cause vs. consequence?

    In qualitative data analysis we should look at interval frequency, representative sampling, removing skews and bias, and using appropriate modelling techniques. Hence the importance of questionnaire design, which is more art than science.

    Data is not just numbers but interpretation. Most models are built on probabilities with assumptions. We can see a pattern and a problem, but may not inquired further or gotten enough reference points to know why. No follow through. Is the problem or opportunity real, or is it just perceived? How much of the problem is the organization's doing? This part is hard to tell just with data.

   How would things change if we had more visibility into data? In the weeks following the outrage over a renewed awareness of Facebook's collection practices many may have made different decisions over their online activities. Better/more data is useful for so many decisions we make in life.

    But it's information on why — motivation and intent — that gives us the necessary clues to make those decisions smart.

Uncommon insights

   Critical thinking and a moral compass help us decrease our dependence on what we think we know and social pressure to conform. Y Combinator's Paul Graham's advice to founders is to do things that don't scale#. In a haste to scale, many businesses and individuals, make trade-offs that end up tying them to unsustainable models and questionable reputations.

   Data can give us the facts, but it cannot tell us what they mean. People can say what they mean. Conversations can tell us a lot about what is happening, why we care, and give us input on opportunity. Communities and tribes give us the ability to go where everyone else isn't.

    This is because:

  • They give us strength — strength is not just in numbers. It's in encouragement, acceptance, and generosity. They provide a very different experience than groupthink
  • They give us learning — performance in the long-term looks very different than optimization for the short term. They motivate us to try new things, and experiment
  • They give us questions — feedback is valuable, but questions provide better clues on what to explore further. They may help us ask better questions, too.

    Data cannot tell us what we don't know. Best practices, what other people are doing can only be a starting point. We still need to figure out what works for us and why. That's a two-part conversation — decide what we're about and what we stand for, and dial in business practices to sync with expectations.

    Expectations evolve based not just on what we do, but on what everyone else is doing. A community gives an organization the advantage of insight and is a differentiator that cannot be copied easily — people identify with collective goals of growth and learning. It's the caring and sharing that creates bonds and an experience worth having.

     Data may show us a map, a simplified version to get us from point A to point B. But it's not the territory of opportunity for the business.