Bringing the Human to the Data — Interview with Christian Madsbjerg

In this episode of the Masters of Data podcast host I spoke with author and consultant Christian Madsbjerg for an engaging conversation on data and what it means to humanize it. It can be said that we don’t often read books that change how we think about the world, but in many ways Christian’s book Sensemaking: The Power of the Humanities in the Age of the Algorithm has done exactly that for me. Christian’s consulting firm ReD Associates has, in their own words, led a quiet revolution in business thinking. This book is a treatise on Christian’s underlying philosophical framework for ReD’s goal to bring the humanities and social sciences into today’s businesses dominated by technology, data, and analytics. In his discussion we find that Christian’s perspective will make the listener rethink their assumptions about the critical importance of the humanities in today’s fast paced world. Ultimately, they review what has to happen for the data industry to see real advancements and change take place.

Christian, who was born in Denmark, spent a lot of his time as a child in the library. Over time, his love for reading and academia grew, but he also saw how unhappy academics tended to be. As his love for learning (but also frustration around academia’s disposition) increased, he eventually came to the decision to start his own company because he saw great value in the philosophy and people of academia despite their shortcomings. And so, for the last 20 years his mission has been to find how to use social sciences and the tools he has acquired, to help people make human decisions. With this goal in mind he has dedicated himself to the work at ReD, has written many books and tries to spread the conviction that humans can be understood in sophisticated ways.

As their discussion unfolds, Christian ultimately shares his reasoning behind his life’s work and the purpose for this book, which many have found to be so impactful. He shares that he became worried about the ideology that sees people and data like they are linear or rational and that machines can simply learn everything through intaking more data. Disciplines like anthropology prove that’s not the case and that people are not predictable, but few people have had the ability to give that reality a voice in the data analytics realm. As Christian deeply believes, data and machines cannot know ourselves better that we know ourselves, something data companies are now slowly realizing.

But as the two share, the goal is not simply to prove the faults in historic approaches to data analytics, but rather to figure out how someone with an anthropology background and someone with an engineering background can work together for the common good without misunderstanding each other. In business, machines are developed to make lives easier, but we forget what it’s like to be a human when it comes to design. As the two discuss, you can build AI but you can’t replicate the human experience; being human isn’t just linear thinking but rather involves investing emotion. There’s something unpredictable about being human. This is why it is important to account for thick data, which takes into consideration context, rather than thin data, which is merely cold, hard facts. When algorithms only take into account thin data, the results are ineffective.

But the conversation does not merely end with a critique of the state of AI and data analytics’ approaches but rather unpacks the practical solutions to the issue of humanizing data. How is this done? As Christian recommends, qualitative data should come before quantitative data, meaning you should get a broader understanding on something before an algorithm is designed. Rather than scraping facts, you must ask questions concerning the context. As designers there likewise has to be vulnerability to show ideas with others, paired with a humility that says others might have something to offer which you don’t, like a fresh perspective. The challenge, as discussed, is that there is a lot of arrogance on each side of the spectrum. The reality that we are often so brilliant in some areas but very ignorant in others is ignored, so we need to find ways to work together. This is Christian’s goal moving forward-to build systems and technologies with others that will improve human the life.

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