Friday, July 17, 2015


(photo credit: ISP)
[This is not an "anti-data, anti-measurement" screed. This is a plea to "understand the data."]

What do you do when the data sources you are looking at indicate that there are more black men in prison than there are alive? If you are Becky Pettit, Sociologist at University of Washington, you write a book called Invisible Men.

If you are in nonprofits, community organizations, foundations, or a citizen of the world - you should #QuestionTheData. When the data don't make sense,  ask how is such a thing possible? Who is doing the data collection? What are they looking for? What are they counting? What are they not counting? Who are they missing?

In our age of data we all need greater data literacy. We need to #QuestionTheData. We need to understand that data are "man made" - they are socially constructed by those who are collecting them. We need to abandon the belief that data are objective and somehow "natural" and recognize that they are useful and constructed.

Here's some old tropes that - when taken out of their intended contexts - highlight the interplay between data and purpose and should inspire us to question all data and all data sources.
  • You can't manage something if you can't measure it. 
  • What gets measured, matters.
  • Not everything that matters can be measured.  
Taken together those tropes point to the intentions behind certain data collection practices (management), the implications of measuring some things (some things don't get measured), and the challenge of turning every worthwhile objective into quantifiable metrics (or data). The tropes are meant to inspire the use of measurement and data, and I'm all for that, as long as we're also trying to be clear on what we're doing, what the data are, what they are not, and what else is needed to make sense.

The Open Knowledge Foundation's new paper on Democratising the Data Revolution gets to the heart of what civil society needs to be doing in the age of big data. Boiling down their report to a bumper sticker, I propose #QuestionTheData.

Download Democratising the Data Revolution here.

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