Why Big Data Needs Human-Centred Questions if it is Going to Add Value to The World

I find attending conferences and public lectures really stimulating: a useful way to network with professionals in diverse fields, share ideas and develop my own.

What is more, the ideas are more alive. Just as a theatre is to a movie, sitting in an audience with a live panel discussion is to watching a TV or YouTube equivalent.

So on a study trip I went to two talks yesterday. The first was all about Big Data in Guildhall, and the second was The Power of Design Thinking, at the RSA.

Both topics are on-trend. Business magazines hail both tools to solve business and societal challenges. But the feeling I left with could hardly have been more different.

The “Big Data: A Twenty-First-Century Arms Race” talk left me feeling pessimistic The Design Thinking talk left me feeling optimistic. What was the reason?

The reason was that Sue Siddal of IDEO surprised me with her number one Design Thinking working principle: to ask human centred questions.

The Big Data talk was defined as an “arms race”, both between the police and intelligence agencies and the bad guys, and presumably, our business and other companies.

The police, fair enough. I sleep better at night knowing smart people are using every tool they have to keep us safe from terrorists. But what about businesses?

What I see with the Big Data question, is companies and organisations rushing to grab onto an answer (for fear of being left behind) without checking in on their core purpose.

Competitive instincts kept us alive on the African savanna thousands of years ago. But in a complex, interconnected world, they can make us dumb, selfish and prone to group-think.

American comedian Jon Stewart once said “If you abandon your values when they are tested, they aren’t your values: they’re just a hobby.”

My experiences mirror this.

  • As a philosophy undergraduate I learned that asking the right question is the most important thing, because everything else will follow. Without considering your beginning premises, your work lacks focus and unscrutinised beliefs can take you down blind alleys.
  • As a data analyst I learned that data are only as useful as what you choose to measure. I saw companies mindlessly hoarding data like candles and tins of baked beans in a nuclear bunker. In feedback I was praised for asking challenging questions at meetings.
  • As a primary school teacher I learned the harm caused by not involving stakeholders in the process. Over-testing kids left both kids and teachers stressed. Worse, it was like keeping taking a bun out of the oven to check if it was cooked. It actively harmed the result it was trying to measure.
  • In my Master thesis I learned the power of asking citizens what they want and harnessing their creativity. By involving more voices, we achieve diversity of thinking, and better solutions. Inclusion is more than a nice-to-have. Increasingly it is for the bottom line.

Three questions / challenges I want to offer to you to aid your thinking:

  1. What human-centred question is your organisation asking in its work? Does your team have ways of keeping this alive in your day to day tasks?
  2. Are you focusing on the endmeans (mastering technical tools) over the end (adding value to the world)?
  3. Can you do more to include the end user in the conversation? And everyone involved in your product or service, every step on the way?