How good is your information? We certainly have a lot of data on hand. IBM is pushing Smarter Planet as a way to solve a myriad of problems, from healthcare to traffic, with access to and processing of data. A recent article in the New York Times discussed how a proliferation of sensors and easy applications has brought data crunching to our personal lives. There is a trend to replace intuition and gut decisions with cold hard numbers.
Part of the interest in numbers stems from detection technologies that are smaller, faster, cheaper and connected. Part come from the ubiquity of excellent, networked detections devices (our mobile phones). Data that wasn’t feasible to collect is now readily available. It is also easier to process massive amounts of data, looking for patterns or a needle in the haystack.
In addition, we are more inclined to put numbers to use for cultural reasons: Numbers are easy to defend than other reasons for decisions because they tend to be objective and consistent.
We all can agree that you don’t want to launch a missile without all the numbers on fuel, thrust and geographic coordinates in hand, but is the same true for launching an political campaign? Can leadership, as just one example, come entirely from numbers?
Numbers themselves may be questionable for a number of reasons:
-They may not be relevant to the question at hand. Or they may just barely be relevant, which is more dangerous because that relevance can be magnified when other factors are uncertain.
– They may not be reliable. Picking numbers out of a soup of real world data is not the same as picking them out of a lab experiment where conditions are controlled. Other factors may contribute in unexpected ways or even mask the real numbers. Look at all the complexity around carbon dioxide and global warming for example.
– Numbers may not be fair. The current census in the United States will undercount illegal immigrants and poor people. Everyone agrees on this, but the numbers collected will be the basis for political representation and distribution of resources. No adjustments will be made.
– Numbers may be highly processed, with a series of reasonable assumptions that ultimately don’t make sense in combination.
Numbers only really have meaning when they are interpreted and put into context. Sometimes, this is straightforward (as with the example of the missile, above). In most human endeavors, however, naive trust of numbers is problematic. In a way, they can be more misleading than more subjective bases for decision-making. The tools of judgment, ethics, compassion and common sense are just as important in a world of available data as they were before devices got small and the planet got wired.