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Janet Bewell

Janet Bewell

Akendi Alumnus

Data Without Context is Just Noise

We’ve all heard the latest catch phrase, “Data is the new oil!” But unlike oil, we don’t necessarily know what to do with all the data that is out there (nor are we sure we need to do something at all).

With oil, we harvest it then use it to heat our homes, cook our food, and move us from one place to the next.  With data, the uses are endless and the meaning depends on the user.

If you asked a group of people from different backgrounds to make sense of a random sample of data, the results could be anywhere from a set of graphs to a 3D product or sound installation.  Unless we know the users and context and have some objective to interpret the data, the data is noise.

Let’s look at social media data.  Back in December 2010, an infographic was created called “Visualizing Friendships” showing the countries using Facebook and their connection to each other.  If you look at the data visualization it would appear that countries in South America and Africa were not heavy users of social media – and did not socialize beyond their country.  When in fact, they were users of social media at the time, but relied on other social media platforms.

The interpreter of the data decided which data was necessary (facebook) and which data was noise (Orkut, for example).  Perhaps the intent of the infographic was not to say that these countries do not use social media, but that was how the audience interpreted it.

Even if you have a model of interpreting data, the consumption might be misunderstood depending on the context and experience of users.  Much like the context of experiencing art, an artist has an intent for his/her paintings.  He/she might have the intent to make you feel empowered but the person experiencing the art might feel alienated; However, if you had experienced this artist before and had previous knowledge about them, perhaps you might have a different understanding of the art – and the experience would reflect this.

Data can be a very powerful thing but it is not as simple to talk about as a commodity like oil.  In order for data to be mined, there has to be some intent from the interpreter and then even after it is interpreted, there are additional factors that come into play when we speak of consumption.

Perhaps, instead, we should think of data as air.  It is all around us, we are constantly consuming it, but we only take notice of it when we have to react to a change in our context.

Janet Bewell

Janet Bewell

Akendi Alumnus


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Akendi is a human experience design firm, leveraging equal parts experience research and creative design excellence. We provide strategic insights and analysis about customer and user behaviour and combine this knowledge with inspired design. The results enable organizations to improve effectiveness, engage users and provide remarkable customer experiences to their audiences.