Stories told by data

When we talk about data, they are actually not more than crumbs of properties. It is therefore not surprising that topics like big data are so hot right now.

The crumbs by themselves are not valuable until piled together in large quantities. We can collect huge quantities of data, but can not call this information until we process them. Information is created by comparing datapoints with each other and with the context they were collected from. With this information we can start looking for patterns or outliers, and with the judgement of collected information we generate knowledge (Ackoff, 1999).

Analysis of data by Sanders and Stappers (2012), based on the theory of Ackoff's DIKW scheme.
Analysis of data by Sanders and Stappers (2012), based on the theory of Ackoff's DIKW scheme.

This process can be used on many sorts of data: it can be used to look back on a certain period or look ahead by predicting future patterns. You can use data to look at results of changes made, or to discover patterns that might fuel new opportunities for change. The moral here is that data can not do it alone, and in the process of distilling information & knowledge, the context should always be clear.

A big and obvious example is the communication around the current pandemic. We have quickly adopted scientific terms such as ‘R value’ and ‘flattening the curve’, and have become obsessed with checking dashboards for the latest developments. However, by themselves these data do not tell a complete story. We need to continuously compare them with the context, and the humans behind these numbers. The discrepancy between the two is what causes uncertainty, anxiety or being overwhelmed.

The amount of 'curves' explaining Covid-19. Adaptation from Andy Kirk.
The amount of 'curves' explaining Covid-19. Adaptation from Andy Kirk.

The corona pandemic is not the only example that illustrates the duality of technology and human perspective. Another example would be climate change and our influence on its changes. A beautiful example of data story telling on this topic is “The Hidden Impact” by Babette Porcelijn. For other examples we could look at privacy issues around big data gathering, or the interaction with Artificial Intelligence.

The impact top 10, adapted from Babette Porcelijn, via Think Big Act Now.
The impact top 10, adapted from Babette Porcelijn, via Think Big Act Now.

In short, the tension between technology and social sciences is all around us and invites us to look closer to the qualitative story that data tell us. What story does your data tell?

By Yael van Engelen, research student Industrial Design (Eindhoven University of Technology)

References:

Ackoff, R. L. From data to wisdom. Journal of Applied Systems Analysis, 16. 1989. 3–9.

Sanders, E. B.-N., and Stappers, P. J. Convivial Toolbox: Generative Research for the Front End of Design. BIS Publishers, 2012.

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