Data Data Everywhere and Not a Drop of Value

As I tune in and out of the recent flurry of discussion around “big data” I can’t help but be reminded of the the old sailor poem:

Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.

If I had a nickel for every founder who told me how much data they were going to collect, well, I’d have a lot of nickels. If I had a nickel for how many of those same founders knew what they were going to do with all of that big data, well, I’d have significantly less nickels.

Here’s the thing. Data, big, medium or small, has no value in and of itself. The value of data is unlocked through context and presentation.

Edward Tufte’s redesign of the Space Shuttle Challenger data has become a classic example of the importance of this point. With the very same data that had befuddled engineers at both NASA and Thiokol, Tufte designed a simple graph that recast the data in the context of the decision that was being made and presented it with imagery even a child could understand.

A similar recasting of data recently caught my eye. 

In a study to measure the effect of data presentation on the consumption of sugary sodas, a team of researchers placed signs on their coolers stating the number of minutes of running it would take to burn off the calories from the drink. The results of this repurposing of data were fascinating:

 What if you knew that it would take 50 minutes of jogging to burn off one soda?

When researchers taped signs saying just that on the drink coolers in four inner-city neighborhood stores, sales of sugary beverages to teenagers dropped by 50 percent. That tactic was more effective than a sign saying that the drinks had 250 calories each, or a sign saying that a soft drink accounts for 11 percent of recommended daily calories. 

Merely listing the calories in a drink (which is already listed on the bottle) seemed to have no effect. Instead of buying soda or fruit juice, many kids who read the sign picked water instead. The work was published today in the American Journal of Public Health.

In this case, the underlying data itself didn’t actually change. The context and presentation of the data changed. And, as a result, so did behavior. 

We’re all drowning in data. I’d love to see more people layering context and presentation  on top of it to build life rafts like the ones outlined above, rather than throwing us better targeted ads disguised as life preservers.