The Problem with Big Data

Brady Mick

2 + 2 = 4 and 2 + 1 = 4

What do you see in the formula above? Possibly you see numbers? An equation? An answer? Maybe you saw a right answer and a wrong answer. Most second grade students are able to express one line as right, and one as wrong. Once expressed, the student is reinforced with a positive for recognizing the correctness. If they see no difference in the two expressions, they are corrected and told the error of their thinking with the expectation of correcting their mistake the next time the truth is tested of them.

We now live in a world of huge expressions of numbers; comically being called “big data”. We collect data of all kinds across our devices and networks. Every time I use my gas card my numbers are recorded; location, amount, interval from last fill up, etc. If someone were so inclined and had the access to my data, they could determine where I fill up, project where I traveled, measure if I purchased any items inside the store, etc. They could probably come within a few miles of where I live, however it is most likely they would have my address along with my gas card number…

So what? I submit that the gas company knows nothing about me from the numbers that trail behind my existence. The numbers tell nothing of my truths, my trust, or my beliefs. The numbers even tell less of my values, in the sense of the person that I am. Further, if you and I both purchased gas at the same station in the same day, the numbers tell absolutely nothing about our relationship.

Data Void of Context

The future of big data is not going to be in the quantification of the numbers. Computers will continue to advance to do the counting. The Avuity team is automating all kinds of data into graphics. But, these graphics are ultimately no different than the counting expression of the heartless numbers that built them (forgiving that most of us prefer a cool color graphic over a column of raw numbers).

Look again at the title above. I see meaningless expressions, void of truth, trust, belief and value.

But if we get curious, both expressions have truth. Let’s ask more of our equations by creating a story. Let us play for a moment with some data. On a table site one bowl with four apples; two red and two yellow apples. Around the table are four small chairs occupied by four kindergarten children, each equally hungry for their afternoon snack. Upon inspection of our data set, let us take one of the red apples and determine that it is rotten at the core, with a worm burrowing into the brown goo that was once white and crisp.

What might the students do? A mad grab might commence, ending with one child in tears. One of the children might opt out of the snack, forgoing a hungry belly for the sake of the others. The teacher might intervene with a creative contest; say a number recognition contest to award the three apples to the best and the brightest of the group. Possibly the teacher would give up their apple to remove the potential disappointment.

The Design Thinking Alternative to Big Data

I bet if we were together right now we could conjure many other scenarios of potential resolutions to our disruptive data set. But imagine that upon deeper investigation we look again at our setting and discover another variable that was not originally recorded; there is a plastic knife at the table. One of the more dexterous children might have the foresight to take the knife, cut the three quality apples into four parts, and distribute three quarters each around the table. Two yellow and one red equals a snack for four kids.

The numbers never tell a story that creates truth, trust, belief or value – never! In design thinking we must re-frame our expectation of what a number is. A number is not an absolute. A number is a story waiting to be told, and the story is about people and their truths, their trust, their beliefs, and their value.

Next time you encounter big data, choose to believe that two plus one can equal four; or twelve; or infinity.

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