Are we too obsessed with data?

Lauren Woodman of Nethope:” Data: Everyone’s talking about it, everyone wants more of it….

Still, I’d posit that we’re too obsessed with data. Not just us in the humanitarian space, of course, but everyone. How many likes did that Facebook post get? How many airline miles did I fly last year? How many hours of sleep did I get last week?…

The problem is that data by itself isn’t that helpful: information is.

We need to develop a new obsession, around making sure that data is actionable, that it is relevant in the context in which we work, and on making sure that we’re using the data as effectively as we are collecting it.

In my talk at ICT4D, I referenced the example of 7-Eleven in Japan. In the 1970s, 7-Eleven in Japan became independent from its parent, Southland Corporation. The CEO had to build a viable business in a tough economy. Every month, each store manager would receive reams of data, but it wasn’t effective until the CEO stripped out the noise and provided just four critical data points that had the greatest relevance to drive the local purchasing that each store was empowered to do on their own.

Those points – what sold the day before, what sold the same day a year ago, what sold the last time the weather was the same, and what other stores sold the day before – were transformative. Within a year, 7-Eleven had turned a corner, and for 30 years, remained the most profitable retailer in Japan. It wasn’t about the Big Data; it was figuring out what data was relevant, actionable and empowered local managers to make nimble decisions.

For our sector to get there, we need to do the front-end work that transforms our data into information that we can use. That, after all, is where the magic happens.

A few examples provide more clarity as to why this is so critical.

We know that adaptive decision-making requires access to real-time data. By knowing what is happening in real-time, or near-real-time, we can adjust our approaches and interventions to be most impactful. But to do so, our data has to be accessible to those that are empowered to make decisions. To achieve that, we have to make investments in training, infrastructure, and capacity-building at the organizational level.  But in the nonprofit sector, such investments are rarely supported by donors and beyond the limited unrestricted funding available to most most organizations. As a result, the sector has, so far, been able to take only limited steps towards effective data usage, hampering our ability to transform the massive amounts of data we have into useful information.

Another big question about data, and particularly in the humanitarian space, is whether it should be open, closed or somewhere in between. Privacy is certainly paramount, and for types of data, the need for close protection is very clear. For many other data, however, the rules are far less clear. Every country has its own rules about how data can and cannot be used or shared, and more work is needed to provide clarity and predictability so that appropriate data-sharing can evolve.

And perhaps more importantly, we need to think about not just the data, but the use cases.  Most of us would agree, for example, that sharing information during a crisis situation can be hugely beneficial to the people and the communities we serve – but in a world where rules are unclear, that ambiguity limits what we can do with the data we have. Here again, the context in which data will be used is critically important.

Finally, all of in the sector have to realize that the journey to transforming data into information is one we’re on together. We have to be willing to give and take. Having data is great; sharing information is better. Sometimes, we have to co-create that basis to ensure we all benefit….(More)”