Data: What Does It Mean?

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These days, it’s hard to imagine how companies would survive without the power of Big Data. The underlying relationships of things that are most important have never been easier to tap into. For example, using readmission rates to help hospital systems understand what their patients need is Big Data at work!

Big Data is transforming the effectiveness and productivity of daily tasks in every industry. It has transformed the financial industry by making early fraud detection possible and making insights into spending habits accessible to customers. Healthcare is also using Big Data to find ways to avoid preventable deaths and improve quality of life. The amount of data generated increases every day, which is possible due to the growth in smart technology usage and the rest of the world gaining access to the Internet. But one of the biggest challenges for the future of Big Data is bringing meaning to the data we collect and the tendency to misinterpret data to fit the outcomes we WANT.

Correlation or Coincidence?

Susan Etlinger is an Industry Analyst for Altimeter Group. She is also well known for her TED Talk called, “What do we do with all this big data?”. In her talk, she claims that people are responsible for creating meaning – not data. In acknowledging how important it is not to misuse the facts data can provide, she mentions that it is important that we treat critical thinking with more respect and focus on studies like the humanities and social sciences. We need to train ourselves to get better at finding our own biases and how they influence the interpretations we give to the data we collect.

Another thing Etlinger mentioned was that, in a world where so much data is being collected, more privacy controls and consumer opt-in are needed. This is something citizens of the European Union will soon enjoy under the GDPR. However, in the U.S., there is no comprehensive federal law regulating the collection and usage of personal data…YET.

We need to be more aware when we value one piece of information over another. This often happens when we allow the data to do the thinking for us or to prove a point we are trying to make. This can lead to the recent occurrences of “fake news” and groups using information and data to complement their opinion on a wide scale.

Separating Facts from The Story

Etlinger says “Show your math”. What she means is looking at the variety of building blocks that make up the data that we have. The volume can be overwhelming and often times we can make data mean anything. It is important that we separate facts from the story (our interpretation). Look at the steps you took and didn’t take to get the data you have. Consider influencing factors and ask questions that help you get to the purest form of information and what it tells you. Getting the facts about the data you have – whether you like it or not – has value in and of itself. The influence of context in Big Data is often overlooked. Seeing context which is the wider conditions, factors, and background will help you bring responsible and valuable meaning to your data.

Co-authored, edited and prepared with Ashlyn Vogelsang.