Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Age of Error

By Evan D. Robertson, Senior Project Associate

I was on a beach somewhere in Key West when a question hit me, could the massive amount of information at our disposal lead to poor decision-making? Admittedly, the question was far from epiphany. I’d just finished reading a National Public Radio blog titled Truth Seeking in the Age of Speculation. The article focused on the dangers of crowd-sourcing, pointing to one example where a group of Reddit Users who mistakenly linked an innocent suspect with the Boston Marathon bombing last April. The mistake, and ensuing firestorm of negativity, resulted in a tragic consequence. Our bent towards crowdsourcing explanation (i.e. allowing a large group to sift through reams upon reams of data, in the case of the Boston Bombing, photos) is indicative of an age that generates so much information that no one person can possibly sort through it all in an intelligible manner. Combine with all the various other data we are bombarded with, it’s difficult to make a correct call or draw an empirical conclusion – especially with very little time to interrupt what the data is actually saying.

As someone who is used to dealing with data on a daily basis, I know how tough it is to intelligently discern trends and make a decision (right or wrong) on the multitudes of inputs that we get bombarded with every day. It’s easy to get overwhelmed with data. Fitness tracking, daily retirement savings reports, current events, and emerging technology trends can lead to a sort of inaction, or at least subpar decision-making. Case in point: Many of the Wall Street executives portrayed in Michael Lewis’s new book on high frequency trading, Flash Boys, had little working knowledge of how their proprietary trading, dark pools, and high frequency trading operations worked, let alone how they related to one another. Without ruining the book, it took one proactive insider to unravel the new high speed trading market and understand how it impacted market stability and investment tactics. Simply put, technology is rapidly evolving and with each innovation comes mounds of data and unforeseen repercussions. Wall Street’s top executives couldn’t (or refused to) understand how their high speed trading operations actually functioned because, in part, it differed so drastically from what the market had been up until that point. They aren’t uneducated folks: it simply highlights how complexity and big data can co-mingle creating a seemingly unintelligible system.

Taking an objective look at the sheer volume of data coming our way, it’s not difficult to see why crowd sourced investigations or explanations from the internet lead to poor, and sometimes unusual, theories. Without the tools to process, interpret, and diagnose, the Era of Big Data could devolve into an Age of Error – an era where more data doesn’t translate into better decision-making.

There are a number of tools that can more easily display and reduce data down into its important component parts. From visualization software to web design, folks are attempting to relay data in an intelligible format.

Infographics: An infographic is a visual representation of information, data, or knowledge. Infographics are intended to communicate complex information in a quick, easy to understand design (generally with the layperson in mind). While visualization tools have proliferated, my favorite (and approachable) tool is the five infographic templates provided by Hubspot. These templates allow you to create infographics within PowerPoint (and who doesn’t know PowerPoint) while guiding you on the ins and outs of simple, yet effective infographic techniques. Infographics can be a powerful tool to fulfill a variety of roles ranging from community information campaigns to investor relations. The Greater Des Moines Partnership’s 2013 annual report and Capital Crossroads’ first year benchmark report are great case studies for economic development professionals seeking to effectively leverage infographics in their community.

Visualization Software: Visualization tools graphically display data in an approachable format. The most common, and usually the go-to, visualization tool is Microsoft Excel. And, have no doubt, Microsoft Excel is a powerful visualization tool. Conditional formatting alone can transform a hard to read table into a quickly taken in visual. Other visualization tools are emerging, offering even greater data flexibility. Tableau offers many of the same visual tools as Excel with a few important caveats: Tableau is built with the website in mind (charts and tables posted to the web are interactive) and the program is highly flexible (you can simply drag and drop data sets into the software program). If you can’t afford Microsoft Excel or Tableau, there are a few free tools that may be of interest. Many Eyes (an IBM program), Google Fusion, Raw, and Gephi are just a few of the free visualization tools that provide sufficient, albeit limited, visualization capability.

Web Design: Finally, I’ve been absolutely impressed by the increasing use of data visualization incorporated into individual websites. The New York Times created a beautifully interactive website highlighting the changes to New York during the Bloomberg’s time as mayor. More recently, the Pew Research Center produced an accessible and interactive website dedicated to the nation’s evolving demographic changes. Both websites tell a story using data, displaying it in an engagingly interactive layout. While both organizations certainly have the resources to produce magnificent websites, it does offer ideas for integrating data and visual tools to an economic development organization’s website. Such tools can better tell the community’s story as well as highlight important economic trends (small caveat: make sure the user can download the information to a spreadsheet).

Much of our work at Market Street entails boiling down volumes upon volumes of data into its essential parts, creating a coherent story about where a community has been and where it is going. Data visualization, whether informing stakeholders about implementation successes or communicating local strengths to a site selector, is another tool at a community’s disposal. These visualizations condense complex information about your community in a format conducive to forming key takeaways. Simplicity and plain speech are the only wards against an Age of Error.