Is Data the Best Disinfectant?


Louis Brandeis, writing about transparency, said that “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” You want to get to the bottom of things? Then measure, report, expose.

Man does nothing to create sunlight. It is an element, a natural resource.

Big data is often seen like sunlight — apply enough reporting and statistics, and everything is revealed. 

It’s no coincidence, then, that big data itself is compared to another natural resource: oil.

We put oil into our cars and expect the engine to fire perfectly, time after time. Granted, this does take effort on man’s part, unlike using sunlight to illuminate. 

But is data a natural resource, like oil? Can we “use” data and expect results just as reliably as we can expect the sun to provide light? 

Not necessarily.

Referring to data as a natural resource is dangerous because we forget its human elements. 

Using data to make informed decisions is not nearly as simple as using sunlight to illuminate. 

We humans decided what data to gather and how to measure it. We had some purpose (I hope!) in collecting the data.

Unlike sunlight, data can be used to obfuscate just as easily as it can be used to clarify.

We all know about “damn lies and statistics.” 

But there can be honest mistakes, too. Sometimes, we don’t measure the right things – or in the right way. Take the 2016 election, for example. 

So, let’s stop calling big data “oil.” Let’s drain the “data lake.” These phrases may serve useful images, but they have dangerous implications.

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