Data isn’t everything – let’s balance it with common sense

I love visualizations, data, and information and finding creative ways to turn it into something interesting and useful. It’s a great way to take advantage of the analytical and creative sides of the brain. At the same time, I’m quite aware that even if the world is becoming more visual and addicted to stats and numbers, we have to be even more wary of how that information is being used and interpreted. It’s shouldn’t be about seeing the superficial side of a statistic and using it in the hopes of sensationalizing a topic (i.e. it’s tempting for journalists and others to do this), but being true to what the statistics represent, building a story around it, and respecting how this may influence the audience.

That’s why it’s refreshing to see that in WIRED, a magazine focused on technology and all the numbers coming from it, they published Felix Salmon’s article “Numbed by Numbers: Why Quants don’t know everything“, which helps to put a bit of perspective on the numbers game.

Let's not get bent out of shape over numbers.
Let’s not get bent out of shape over numbers.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a quant is an expert at analyzing and managing quantitative data and its first known use was in 1979. In Salmon’s article, he uses the example of the movie Moneyball which documented how statistics were used in baseball to help the underfunded Oakland A’s to a division-winning 2002 season. He writes that quants are almost always right since they use algorithms and setup systems that track every aspect of society with 1’s and 0’s. Yet, the more that a field is run by a system, the more the system creates incentives for everyone to change their behavior – and in the end people start to cheat the system – and that the statistics/numbers generated by the system may not actually hold value or be telling the “truth”.

It’s increasingly clear that for smart organizations, living by numbers alone simply won’t work…

There needs to be a bit more of a balance to the numbers that can help make our lives better and the use of good ol’ human insight, decision-making and common sense. Believing in statistics as they stand is one thing, but we also have to use our judgement and experience to bolster our understanding so that this information can improve the society we live in. For example, the National Weather Service employs meteorologists who, understanding the dynamics of weather systems, can improve forecasts by as much as 25% compared with computers alone.

Let’s celebrate the value of disruption by data – but let’s not forget that data isn’t everything.

Read “Numbed by Numbers: Why Quants don’t know everything

4 thoughts on “Data isn’t everything – let’s balance it with common sense”

  1. Hi Vincent,

    A couple comments:

    1) First, I completely agree with you. In the humanitarian sphere I see that folks seem to want a lot of information distilled down to one nice graphic that they can point towards it on a decision or display it in their office. And, some seem to believe that using this “data” will mean that we do not need so many people with experience. What people tend to forget though is that we generally require 5 cues in order to make a decision. An infographic or map is only going to be one of those cues (and is often why people get upset when such a product does not make the decision for them). Experience helps us make sense of these cues so that we can make more informed decisions. In times of crisis, decisions need to be made fast. So, combining data specialists with humanitarian experts seems like a wise direction. I am a big advocate for determining who your decision makers are and figuring out what they need ( — then produce products.

    2) Data Journalism. I have been pushing for a while to convince some of the UN humanitarians that we need to look at the data journalism discipline & figure out how we blend it into our work. We need people who are well versed in playing/digging in data, but also then know how to tell (an honest) story with it.

    3) The Oakland A’s. What I find interesting about a case like the Oakland A’s is that they have actually increased their scouting budget since 2002. They know that combining the amazing baseball data together with human experience, they will achieve the best results possible. Have the computers do what they are good at (processing/big data) and have humans do what they are good at (judgement).


  2. Andrej – great points… I definitely agree that a one size fits all approach is detrimental to issues as complex and important as the humanitarian and development fields. Infographics and visuals are great (cool things to show people or hang on the wall), but aren’t very useful if they don’t help to get people to make better decisions… There’s a sense that the more information we have means we should be able to have answers more easily… yet it’s possibly the opposite. With more information, we need to have more analysis and experience to help us make sense of it.

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