There are Three Kinds of Lies: Lies, Damned lies, and Data
Not so long ago, Google created a Web site to figure out just how many people had influenza. How they did this was by tracking “flu-related search queries”, “location of the query,” and applied it to an estimation algorithm. According to the website, at the flu season’s peak in January, nearly 11 percent of the United States population may have influenza. This means that nearly 44 million of us will have had the flu or flu-like symptoms. In its weekly report the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention put this at 5.6%, which means that less than 23 million of us actually went to the doctor’s office to be tested for flu or to get a flu-shot.
Now, imagine if I were a drug manufacturer. There is a theory about what went wrong. The problems may be due to widespread media coverage of this year’s flu season. Then add social media, which helped news of the flu spread quicker than the virus itself. In other words, the algorithm is looking only at the numbers, not at the context of the search results.
In today’s digitally connected world, data is everywhere: in our phones, search queries, friendships, dating profiles, cars, food, and reading habits. Almost everything we touch is part of a larger data set. The people and companies that interpret the data may fail to apply background and outside conditions to the numbers they capture.
Now, while we build our big data repositories, we have to spend some time to explain how we collected the data and under what context.