The Problem With An Over-Reliance On Data

Data doesn’t say anything. Humans say things. We’ve conflated data with truth. And this has dangerous implications for our ability to understand, explain, and improve the things we care about.

Professor Andrea Jones-Rooy

Last Saturday evening fans of Little Mix who had tuned in to BBC1 to watch the latest episode of their talent show, The Search, were instead treated to a contender for the world’s shittest PowerPoint presentation.

The slides, introduced by the government’s chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance and its chief medical officer Chris Whitty, have been variously described as unstructured, ugly and unclear on what they were trying to get across to the public.

Whether you are pro, anti or ambivalent towards the latest lockdown – you had to be a near genius to draw anything meaningful from what was a truly baffling slide deck.

16 data heavy slides in just 12 minutes, some not even fitting on the screen. A spaghetti junction of graphs and charts rather than simple take away headlines. Labels and colour codes indistinguible or missing entirely.

This was a masterclass in how not to use data in your organisation.

There was a certain dark humour on Twitter with people wondering whether Death by PowerPoint was as painful as Death by COVID.

Of course, this is genuinely no laughing matter. How can key public health messages be delivered from the highest office of the country in a way that would embarrass the most inexperienced comms newbie?

One of the answers is that the data has been allowed to take over from the story. In the first lockdown the story was very clear indeed and we all complied. Now, I’m not sure we know what the story even is.

What the Government want us to do is to change our behaviours, and you make change through stories, not statistics.

We’ve all sat through presentations like this at work. We’ve all heard a presenter say “You probably can’t see this diagram from where you’re sitting but what it’s showing is…”.They are often put together by someone deeply in love with their own subject matter or persons with a strange proclivity for Venn and Sankey diagrams.

Whilst a good presentation almost always includes credible data, data alone doesn’t guarantee a good presentation. Having access to a lot of data is good. Knowing how to use it is better.

The reliance on data as a way to seek truth has boomed in recent years. The more data you are armed with the better, or so it seems.

I regularly hear companies say they are incapable of making a decision about something as they don’t have enough data, the right data, or because the data they have is of poor quality.

This notion of data equalling a divine truth needs challenging. As Andrea Jones-Rooy writes in Quartz, data only exists in the first place because humans chose to collect it, and they collected it using human-made tools. Therefore data is as fallible as people.

As she says “Data is an imperfect approximation of some aspect of the world at a certain time and place. As long as data is considered cold, hard, infallible truth, we run the risk of generating and reinforcing a lot of inaccurate understandings of the world around us.”

That said – we still need to believe in data. Data is necessary for us to understand the problem and to begin asking questions about it. It is only through asking those questions that we find a pathway towards a solution.

And therein lies the problem with the way much data is presented. It lends itself to generating confusion rather than great questions.

Or worse – it leads to mistrust.

Ed Conway, the numbers guy from Sky, has done a superb Twitter thread on this – “Lockdowns, like em or not, won’t work if no-one trusts the process and doesn’t comply. But that trust is earned. And easily lost. How do you earn trust? Well part of the answer is transparency. If you’re clear and honest about why you’re doing something and the evidence behind it, you will bring people along with you.”

Ed concludes that we need transparency, and that means not using out of date, poorly labelled charts to justify decisions. Or hiding data that helps explain why we’re facing unprecedented restrictions.

It’s a theme that Gavin Freeguard picks up for the Institute for Government – pointing out that badly presented data will be confusing to people inside government too. If we as the general public are having difficulty understanding messages across (and within) datasets, it suggests those inside government are having similar struggles. Indeed, making sense of the data is made nearly impossible by the sheer number of sources in use. There’s the ONS, PHE, NHS as well as other sources in Wales and Scotland.

The Case For Better Data

We need good data to ask better questions. It is only through those questions we’ll solve better problems and have greater impact.

We need to bring better data insights to our colleagues. We need to get better at ‘data storytelling’ that gives anyone, regardless of level or skill set, the ability to understand and use data in their jobs every single day.

It’s the best way to give our people the story about what’s happening and what we need them to do.

Poorly presented though, it may also be the worst.

Header image by Tom Fishburne


4 thoughts on “The Problem With An Over-Reliance On Data

  1. Dear Paul

    Don’t it make you want to weep. On both sides of the house we have so called highly intelligent, degree plus educations, but so little understanding of what life is like at the sharp end. It seems going by some ot the Sunday papers Boris is livid that he was apparently ambushed over his decision.

    I’m now retired, age 75 , wife of 52 years, age 77 so with medical problems and social housing difficulties brought on by untrained , in the areas required in housing , made worse by the mental issues surrounding us with fellow tenants desperately requiring professional help. We survive this and the added difficulties in receiving health care we had previously taken for granted. Rather than shout foul , with my wife we have persevered, with patience and lots of humour to work with clinicians and the background admin to obtain some movement forward. I’m also volunteering with local surgery to help on their patient to clinician services improvement .

    So I/ we can say we are at the front line in this war against an unseen , highly dangerous, enemy. An enemy that does not have a team of generals receiving updates on strategy. It just wants to infect more people for its survival.

    I/ we have self isolated , restricted all social activities and have relied on our own company, our library of books, including public library ( fortunate we had some 40 books on loan at lockdown , and some replenishment since) plus numourous films and T.V. Programs ( higher than normal , due to my wife’s stays in hospital two previous years). Phoned people and used emails.

    Besides collection of medicines and visits to surgeries I have attempted shopping and when weather was good actually bent the rules by taking my wife with me. I shopped, she read the papers. Never more than 30 minutes from home because it’s still impossible to use public toilets. A NATIONAL SHAME.

    No sympathy asked for or needed. Few arguments , lots of laughs, at ourselves, keeping sane.

    To the crux of the matter. Throughout this time , until mid July we did not know of anyone having the virus. In July one friend who fortunately, soon recovered and his friend in a similar position are the only ones we know had the virus.

    Also throughout this time, who know of people dying, mainly elderly, but younger unexpected deaths. This is real life. Not one of those was because of Covid 19.

    I’m spoken to our local independent greengrocer , who provides floral tributes, but not to one Covid 19.

    I’m interested in numbers, and wrote to National Health some 18 months ago when the new prescription service failed many patients including myself regarding known errors within all ” large number spread sheets” . Sorry , but we currently are either assisting rogue companies, newly set up to get rich , or just wasting money on untested I.T. programs .

    I wear my mask in public, I refuse to visit pubs for my wife’s sake but can sympathise with those who do not heed the current
    Draconian measures.

    If we are to survive, which of course we will, it needs truth, without political points being scored, it needs needs understanding of modern lifestyles ( fully accept that I, not my wife , is classed as odd for caring). Also accept that a world problem needs worldwide thinking way above what we are seeing.
    We, had and probably could still have the best policing, by consent. It’s frightening how quickly it’s now illegal to question the system.

    Final thought. What happened to respect for other people’s time and timed appointments. You led on the fact how late the so called earlier Boris show was advertised. It started late, very late and thus over ran.

    His political advisor Mr Cummings earlier in the year lost all right to a fair viewpoint when his contempt for you, me, the media, the public and world at large meant he could just keep us waiting.

    1. Excellent comment Mike with so many talking points. But you’re right – there’s a lack of transparency that I think is now affecting people’s ability to take advice seriously. I had to pop into town centre yesterday morning – something I never usually do especially in week. I was surprised to see so many people about – it was verging on busy. I don’t think people are actively breaking rules just that they’ve stopped believing.

  2. Amazing post. I am in hospital with Covid due to oxygen issues. It is hard to get people to look beyond data. Everyone is now dependant on the readings coming out of the machines we are hooked to. Clinical examination is nil.

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