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  • Writer's pictureMark

The Tale of Data: Understanding Its Journey and Decoding Its Story

Introduction


Picture these two scenes: Firstly, a person being enthusiastically led (or dragged!) by a dog, full of energy and second, the peaceful scene of passengers immersed in their books on the deck of a ship. At first glance, these images may seem worlds apart and in stark contradiction to each other. However, delve a little deeper and you can spot a shared thread.


Data: Beyond Face Value

Who's really taking who for a walk?


If an alien were to visit and view the above scene, they would likely interpret this as a dog taking its faithful, and apparently slow or unwilling, pet person out for a lunchtime walk. That would likely be compounded by a later scene where the dog returns home for its food, duly prepared by its human companion, before the dog retires for a well-deserved post lunchtime nap!


A serene scene on the deck of a ship


Cut to the second scene mentioned and sadly, this picture is thought to be of the Titanic. I do not need to go any further in explaining the scenes that followed in this tragic story. The readers on the ship deck and the person being walked by their dog need to be viewed within a context, a story that extends beyond the immediate scene. This mirrors the complex journey that data undergoes - from its origin, through its processing, to the insights it delivers and story it tells. These seemingly unconnected scenes remind us of the need to critically appraise the vast amount of data we are continuously exposed to in our information age.


These snapshots symbolise the often-deceptive nature of data. As a society, we are inundated with data, and the ease with which we can access it can sometimes blind us to the nuances and complexities lurking beneath the surface.


Like the two images, data can tell vastly different stories depending on how it's presented and interpreted. It is crucial to probe beyond the obvious, to question the origins of data, and understand the journey it has taken.


Consider data as a jigsaw puzzle piece or a musical note – by itself it’s just a fraction of a bigger picture or melody. Its true significance only becomes apparent when it is viewed together with the other pieces, or heard alongside the other notes.


The Data Journey: Origin to Insight


In understanding data, the first crucial step is to consider its origins. Data does not just materialise - it is typically collected from a variety of sources. Understanding where it came from, and how it was collected and processed, is instrumental in determining its validity and reliability. This context and description of the data, or metadata if you like, can be compared to the corner pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, the foundational structures on which the complete picture can be built.


Risk and Bias: The Pitfalls of Data


Just as understanding the source of data is vital, acknowledging the inherent risks and biases that might be embedded within the data is equally significant. Data can sometimes be misleading, and our minds often use cognitive shortcuts or heuristics to fill in gaps in data or manage information overload. This introduces bias, which can distort the data's narrative and lead to misinterpretations.


Let's use my recent LinkedIn post as a case study on data bias:




The LinkedIn post featured a chart that, at first glance, depicted the drastic decline of an asset, losing 89% of its value in under five years. The image immediately invoked notions of financial ruin and led the majority of respondents to determine that any investor involved would have been completely wiped out.


Yet, on closer inspection, the picture wasn't so straightforward. I had intentionally manipulated the chart to illustrate how easily bias can creep into data interpretation.



Firstly, the axes of the chart were swapped, presenting Bitcoin, the asset in question, on the Y-axis, and its USD value on the X-axis. This inversion created an illusion of decline where there had actually been rapid growth. This switch also conveniently concealed the significant drop in Bitcoin's value in early 2022, making it appear as an insignificant blip on the chart due to the inverted perspective.


I also omitted six months from the chart, circled in red above. This seemingly small adjustment nearly doubled the return, transforming a hefty 75% loss into an even more devastating 89% loss.


The manipulation of how the information was presented in this chart underscores how selective representation and subtle changes can dramatically distort how we interpret and reach conclusions about data.

The Importance of Live Data


In our fast-paced world, the age of data can greatly impact its relevance and reliability.


Imagine a fresh apple picked straight from the tree, and then compare that with a picture of an apple that's been sitting untouched in your fruit bowl for a few months. You would imagine the first apple to be juicy, crisp, and full of nutritional goodness. On the other hand, the second one would likely be tasteless, and bad for you.


The same applies to data. Live, fresh data provides a real-time view of the situation, enabling agile decision-making and more accurate insights. However, aged data may offer outdated information, leading to incorrect assumptions or misinformed decisions.


The Data Story: Telling a Tale or Unveiling the Truth?


Every data point has a story to tell, but are we listening to the right tale?


Often, data can be misused or manipulated to confirm beliefs or ideas. We might be tempted to cherry-pick data points that support our viewpoint, conveniently ignoring or overlooking those that challenge it.

But, are we listening to the music as intended, or has the tune being changed to meet our needs or confirm our biases?


This is something we must continue to guard against. Instead of getting data to fit our narrative, we need to allow data to tell its own story, in all its completeness and complexity.


Conclusion


Life isn't a snapshot, a single moment frozen in time, and neither is data. Just like the readers on the ship deck or the person being dragged along by their dog, data typically sits within a broader context. It's not enough to consider a single data point in isolation. We must understand where it came from, its relevance, its limitations, and how it interacts with other data elements.


In this era of big data, it's easy to get swept up in the surge of numbers and statistics. However, the value of data is not in its volume, but is in the insights it can offer through mindful interpretation.


Scenes from a ship deck and an enthusiastic dog walk may not seem to have much in common on the surface. However, when studied through the lens of data interpretation, they share a crucial lesson - the importance of understanding context and narrative. In data, as in life, it's only when we delve deeper and beyond the obvious that we begin to understand the real story. At MJ Solution Consulting, we're dedicated to helping businesses like yours streamline and optimise their data processes. Our team can help you identify inefficiencies, develop tailored solutions, and implement best practices to drive significant improvements in your data management. Reach out to us today, and let's work together to take your data processes to the next level, empowering your business to thrive in the ever-evolving digital landscape.

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