Opinion

Data’s branding problem is as bad as feminism’s

With the wealth of data increasingly becoming more of a hindrance than a help, Isobar's Sarah Pritchard considers why data has such an image problem.

Why is data so confusing? We’re at a strange point when it comes to talking about it. There’s more discussion on data in our workplaces and in our media than ever before, and it’s become an integral part of our lives, and yet there’s a problem – it doesn’t seem like we’re any closer to collectively comprehending it.

Despite the ubiquity of data, it’s increasingly baffling to so many. In fact I’m sure you’ve read many “think pieces” on data and felt a sense of loftiness in it – there’s something about how we think and talk about data that makes us feel like it’s something otherworldly and out of our grasp.

How did we reach this point, where something that so profoundly affects our lives is so misunderstood?

I see so many parallels between the term ‘data’ and the term ‘feminism’ in the modern vernacular (yes I’m exactly aware of how much trolling I’m going to attract just by mentioning the ‘f’ word). They are both vitally important things that are deeply misunderstood and mistreated, unable to provide its full value to so many who would benefit from it.

I also find it a good thought experiment to think of data as a brand.

Why think about data as a brand? Especially in the marketing space it has come to mean something very specific – it’s more often than not a product made up of lots of information that is structured in a particular way and collected via the internet which can either be very valuable and important or very annoying and useless depending on who is looking at it.

Qualitative information can also be categorised as data, but the association with the word is so strongly towards quantitative that data and quantitative information as terms are basically interchangeable. Through my time in the last roughly six years of being a quant obsessive, I’ve got a few hypotheses about why the current brand of data that we have at the moment might not be serving us very well. Those hypotheses might help lead us to ways in which data might become clearer and more useful to us.

Firstly, a whole lot of us are probably suffering from mathematical anxiety, coupled with the overwhelming volume of data that becomes very difficult to empathise with. Secondly, data and quant specialists have generally not done a good job at making data clear to those who don’t live and breathe it every day, especially with unwieldy concepts like big data.

I’m sure you’re as sick of the phrase ‘drowning in data’ as I am, but it’s a cliche for good reason. Credit: nikko macaspac

There’s so much of it, we don’t recognise it as coming from us

That cliche that we’re ‘drowning in data’ is overused, but is an enduring truth – there’s so much going on that we now talk about living in an Attention Economy that feels increasingly dystopian. With so much to be bombarded with, the information available to us feels overwhelming to the point of meaninglessness. There’s significant research on the prevalence of mathematical anxiety which drives many to avoid numbers entirely, even though people have been saying for the past 10 years that data is an integral part of who we are these days.

Data specialists and the false promise of ‘big data’ have done well to be obfuscating

It’s not just overwhelming for those who dip their toe occasionally into the stats waters. Trends in data and statistical applications has been confusing and strange recently. Once heralded as some kind of magical remedy, big data isn’t really a thing anymore, with much less tangible, practical value than expected. For more recent technical developments, it’s rather terrifying that artificial intelligence like deep learning is basically a ‘black box’, with little recourse to understand how these systems actually work.

Overcoming these challenges to address the data brand problem is obviously complex – but here’s a few things that might help:

Learn about code even if you will never ever write it

I think we try and ignore it a lot of the time, but if data is an integral part of our lives, then so is code. There are many resources out there on how to understand code, but one of my favourite reads is this longform piece from Paul Ford, simply titled ‘What Is Code?’. You will likely need a few sittings to get through it like I did, but it’s worth it.

You don’t have to become a data mechanic, but you might want to know a little bit to get where you need to go. Credit: Igor Ovsyannykov

Meditate more

Some recent research on math anxiety indicates that meditation and mindfulness exercises can help our brains be more receptive to mathematical ideas. If we’re feeling anxious about maths, this surely ties in rather nicely with some other recent research on psychological safety in the workplace which suggests that we’re not currently as able as we could be to open ourselves up to data concepts. The modern workplace will need to consider how it protects the psychological safety of the people who work there.

Sarah Pritchard is a data strategist at Isobar.

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