HB ON THE SCENE: Making Data More Human

NEW ORLEANS—Two things are very clear when it comes to data: It has become integral to the way we do business today and we’ve barely begun to scratch the surface when it comes to the possibilities data can bring us. At this year’s HITEC, held here at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, keynote speaker Jer Thorp, cofounder, Office for Creative Research, delved into the ways in which we can make data more human.

“Data is probably a word you’ve heard a lot over the past few years,” said Thorp. “Before I came on stage, I looked up on The New York Times website how many times it has mentioned the word data so far this year. There have been 8,838 stories that have been published that have involved the word data. What’s changed is that whereas five years ago those stories would have been mostly in the business section, the stories now are in all of the sections of the newspaper.”

“Measurement of something” is how Thorp defined data for the audience. “The word measurement reminds us this is a human act that creates data. Data doesn’t just drop down from the sky,” he said. “The ‘of something’ is really important because I think the biggest mistake we make with data is we confuse the data with a thing or the actual real world system.”

Thorpe also noted it’s important not to get caught up in the idea of big data. “I have an allergy to the term big data,” he said, noting the phrase is starting to go out of style. “It’s not really about big data. It’s about small data and our measurements getting more precise.”

A data artist whose work focuses on adding narrative meaning to huge amounts of data, Thorp noted there are two reasons to visualize data: To make something complicated more simple or to see something you haven’t seen before. And while the possibilities are endless with the amount of data points out there now—even something as simple as seeing who is posting on Twitter from the airplane runway can give you so much information about potential guests—Thorp noted it’s important to humanize data.

“Data is bleeding into culture,” he said. “One of the questions I want to pose to all of you: What does it feel like to live in data?” Thorp mentioned a study in which a group of researchers pinpointed the saddest place in New York City based on social media sentiments, claiming it was a high school. “The geocoding was off,” he said, noting the saddest spot was actually a couple of miles away.

When it comes to the way we think about data today, Thorpe said there is much danger. “I don’t think we’d have to think very hard to imagine a scenario in which that could have gone much more wrong. We’re talking about kids, their lives and a very emotional part of their lives. We’re doing things without considering the individuals.

“We’ve created this world in which we’re very far away from data. What we all should be trying to do is come up with a new world in which humans are closer to data,” he continued. “Collectively, what we should do is to leave this era of big data, of data as the new oil, and go toward an era of data humanism. There are three things to think about: volunteer transparency to people in your data system (tell them what you’re doing with their data and how); have clear mechanisms for people to control their experience and possibly remove themselves from your system; and treat human data with humanity. Remember, these are artifacts of people’s lives. Don’t think about them as the customer—think about them as your family members.

We’re creating a new data world that the next generation is going to live in,” he continued. “Data is fantastic; it provides opportunity for beauty, nuance and experience…But what are we creating with data systems: unlivable environments or places we’d want our grandchildren to live inside?”

—Nicole Carlino