French nobility, crepes, and data science in 1700

An excellent grasp of data analytics determined who got to watch King Louis XIV eat dinner more than 200 years before the first programmable computer.

I had the privilege of visiting the Palace of Versailles last week. The architectural achievement, majestic beauty, and historical importance certainly was visible to me — just like any normal, non-data-geek visitor. So now my more geeky of readers must be thinking — but of course, you noticed the fireplace and thought of The Doctor . No, that’s not it either. Well, not entirely.

Structure drives flow

What I noticed was the design of the structure and how it supported the flow of information. French nobility had the basics of life under control. Food, water, shelter — accounted for by the labors of others. The information that was useful to nobility was where they ranked in the constantly shifting hierarchy, and what the people a step above them were doing. This resulted in a complete lack of privacy for those at the top as constant observation was the key mechanism for data gathering and a strictly regulated schedule was necessary for all players to participate in the routines.

Think of your last visit to a nice restaurant. If you had a reservation, you probably made it online or at least via telephone. The host has an iPad or computer where scheduling is managed. Now think of coordinating all of the guests without knowing who may come, at what time, and dealing with a strict protocol about who would be seated first, closest to other guests and such. What a mess. This is what the palace staff at Versailles managed impeccably on a daily basis.

Decide what is important

How? By focusing on only important data elements. Jumping back to 2016 — if you made a reservation online, there was likely extraneous information that you were required to provide — some for the reservation service, some for marketing purposes, some just because the system may be sub-optimal. Let’s take your email address as an example. There is a corresponding physical address used in the 18th century — but I am confident in saying it wasn’t included on dinner placards. What mattered was rank. The design of the buildings routed people to the right places. Think of it as a funnel. Various corridors serviced the purpose of educating the visitor of the importance of who they were about to see, his achievements, and based on the location of the visitor (which level of apartment or dining) the king or higher nobility could judge the importance of the guest. Physical location drove assumptions about data elements.

This is a tactic that we should see more of today. We greatly tax the patience of our business partners and customers by asking them to fill out form after form — collecting data for the sake of future use. Think like a French noble. What do you really need to know, and how can you know it? Be efficient. While digital technology is a great tool — it shouldn’t stop us from thinking about the analog world. If you wouldn’t take the time to track the data in an analog fashion, you should ask yourself if you really need it. What problem does it solve for you?

Royal Stalking

There really was a room designed for the king to be observed while he at dinner, and the other nobles would provide running commentary among themselves. That’s a rather creepy level of data gathering.

And the crepes — they were just what I ate for lunch and quite memorable.