The Point of Collection
Mimi Onuoha

My wife filled in a form, and we have been plagued for the last year” — Glenngarry Glen Ross (1992)

Great thoughts! I’ve been chipping away at these philosophical data questions for awhile and in the same location as you Mimi, which is the collection or measurement planning phase. We need to be more thoughtful, considerate and human in how much we do flatten individual variation. In doing so we have to grapple with what the ethical standards are for the data profession.

Here is a little thought experiment I wrote:

You are sitting behind extensive data on an individuals interests, personal and professional network and personality. The system detects that this individual is 10lbs overweight, it’s summer, 90% of their trusted network is going to diet and they’ve searched a little on various diets. If you could push a button and start marketing them health products, is it ethically right to do so? Here now we have to ask what the ethical standards are for the data profession. I’ve set-up this example to show that the person took the tiniest of nibbles on the bait. Yet in my observation many companies are trying to reel them back into the normal distribution with all the force of a marlin on the line! This then reduces other possible paths. They path in which our person may have thought — ‘ya know, this diet thing ain’t for me. I’m going to read Moby-Dick instead.’ is gone since the person won’t be advertised books but instead numerous products from the Cult of Health company. Cult of Health has all kinds of products to sell you, some of which may do something, some may help you, some may hurt you internally and emotionally. We don’t care. We don’t test for that. All we test for with our data is to see if you should be moved back into the normal distribution instead of taking an anomalous path. If that happens, we’re successful. But again I ask, are we conducting ourselves ethically?

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