Data – The Next ‘Not-Best’ Thing

Anumeha Verma
Published: March 2018

The recent events in politics and society around the world have left bewildered experts in their wake, but what can it mean?

Pundits across the world now talk in ‘probable’ and ‘not-probable’. What can happen and what cannot happen has been reduced to a set of data. Linguistically, usage of the word ‘data’ has its own complications. Its origin is Latin and it is the plural form of ‘datum’ and therein lies the catch. Pam Peters writes, “Plural agreement is still insisted on by many academic circles where old scholastic traditions die hard. But in general English usage of data, it also combines with singular verbs and pronouns.” Consequently today it is both plural noun meaning ‘facts or pieces of information’ and a singular mass noun meaning ‘information’.

Whether it is the board rooms of multinationals or the make-shift offices in chic-coffee shops which some start-ups operate from, the constant cry that is encountered is that ‘data is the king’.

The same data is also depended upon by the political wannabies across the world who want to reach the ante-chambers of hallowed offices.

Thus collected and fed into the spreadsheets, coded, run through computer generated programmes (which have supposedly taken all scenarios into very data like consideration) before being brought out in the form of percentages, data these days is easily available. It goes on to become the basis of all sorts of decisions; those as financially oriented as whether India’s largest auto manufacturer, Tata Motors Limited should acquire Jaguar, the luxury vehicle brand of Jaguar Land Rover, a British multinational car manufacturer or socially relevant issues such as whether women healthcare in the country requires a separate budget.

Data is good. It makes life simpler and profits soar. Not to mention the additional budget data is capable of justifying for another steel and concrete flyover in the city when good people of elected offices decide that other pressing issues are of no consequence and can be neglected because the data shows there is not ‘that much’ need to invest in the social scheme. The ruling party in Karnataka has faced serious flak from the public for giving a green signal to a 6.7 km flyover connecting the city of Bengaluru to Kempegowda International Airport with a total cost of INR 1,791 crores amidst a wave of protests from the general public which feels the state government should be investing more in developing its out-dated public transportation system in other parts of the city. The data on traffic congestion has been waved in the face of these protests. Though numbers managed to win this battle, the cost of it would be apparent only in the future.

In the 2016 biographical film Sully, directed by Clint Eastwood, the essence of what we do when we try to make data the king is well articulated. The film is based on a true incident that took place in 2009, whereby Captain Chesley Sullenberg and his co-pilot had to land the aircraft flying from La Guardia Airport to Charlotte Douglas International Airport on the Hudson River in New York.

The lives of all the passengers and crew members was saved. However, enquiries that ensued after simulation exercises and computer algorithms showed that instead of landing on the Hudson, the captain had enough time to fly back to La Guardia after being hit by a flock of birds barely two minutes into the flight and losing both the engines. Sully, played by Tom Hanks in the movie, challenges the data and makes a very pertinent point- “you have taken humanity totally out of the cockpit. All these simulations make no room for human factor.” When the authorities run the data accounting for human factor, they realize that Sully was right in landing on the river and could not have returned to the airport of origin without endangering the lives of people.

Tom Hanks might have been giving the acting performance of his lifetime in the courtroom scene when he challenges the claims of NTSB officials citing the ‘the human factor’ but what is happening world-wide is not a filmed scene. It is real and it is beginning to have consequences that has left the world feeling a trifle uneasy and worried about the future.

Coming back to politics, opinion polls have attempted again and again to gauge the public mood through numbers. At times, the pollsters have succeeded and at others met with failure. However, the recent happenings have triggered events that will change the world forever from how we know it to be. On the brighter side,these events have also given us an opportunity to examine the pressure points of the data-based analysis and the shortcomings it suffers from.

The outcomes of the last elections conducted in two of world’s largest democracies, India and the US caught everyone unawares. In India, though everyone was expecting the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to come in power in the Assembly Elections of 2014,no one could have in their wildest dreams imagined that it would attain a resounding majority, reducing the Opposition’s voice to a mere trickle in a Parliament which is known for its robust walk-outs and protests.

The US cuts another story. That a billionaire would win election by playing the provocateur is a feat that could not have been perceived by anyone, leave alone the winner himself who during his campaigns spoke of plans for widespread rigging of elections. Yet, Donald Trump is the President Elect and he would sit in the Oval Office no matter how uncomfortable it makes some of his own citizens or the rest of the world.
Data again became a major casualty there as well. And it wasn’t as if we didn’t see it coming. In between the two elections, there was the unfinished business in the United Kingdom’s referendum to remain or withdraw from the European Union (EU), commonly known as Brexit, a portmanteau of ‘British Exit’. Even people who had voted to opt out of European Union had not imagined that it could really happen. But again, it did leave us stunned.

There is nothing wrong with data. Homo sapiens are an uncertain lot. After all, when you do not know where you came from and when you will exit this world, it does create a lot of insecurity no matter how robust your psychological constitution is. Numbers give a safety net and help us make sense of a world, which otherwise remains a mystery.
However there remains a glaring glitch. Somewhere in this organised, algorithm-based and analytics driven world of data, the cacophony that is the human psyche does not feature.

With all the data available in the world, no one can say with authority why someone prefers a Chanel over Calvein Clein or Jazz over Blues for that matter. We are complicated beings, governed by impulses and compulsions that even we ourselves cannot comprehend completely.
Agreed, there are better instruments to measure the metricsthat have been formulated, capable of taking into account the human factor to a certain degree but they are still wanting on some crucial aspects. In the world we live in, change remains the only constant. When the socialist states failed, a new paradigm emerged. Capitalism became the new Emperor, democracy was embraced and the two partners have been ruling in cahoots for a very long time but the progenies that they brought into this world remain poles apart.

On one hand is the uber rich class, comprising elites and the noveau rich. These two different breeds of the same class exist in an uneasy camaraderie. On the other hand, there are the masses who were left behind and the waves of capitalism have swept over them without improving their lives. This divide exists in every developing and developed country, irrespective of the fact where they lie on the power-metre. Hit by corruption, a seemingly apathetic governance system which calls itself ‘liberal’, they languish on the side lines as they watch many of their fellow-countrymen rise to glory. They are a disenchanted lot and cannot be blamed for their cynical attitude towards liberal policies that have become the hallmark of governance over the years in India and the US.

We have become a data-driven society where economics plays a vital role in policy decisions. Gaining the upper hand in the international arena has become the favourite sport for the powers that be. In such an environment, whenever the neglected and ignored lot raises a voice it is soothed with cosmetic surgery. In fact, this majority does not have a voice in the world of excel sheets where purchasing power of the people is proportional to how much they can influence a policy.

It is this lot that seems to be finally venting its anger at the only place it can, the ballot box, throwing off trade-pundits and analysts in a tizzy as they turn to their data spreads to understand what hit them. The frustrations of the masses are leaving angry welts for everyone to see.

Previous governments and policy makers have already fallen a victim to disillusioned people who have started voting for any kind of change.

Often many do not even understand what this change could mean. May be it is time to put a stop to gimmicks and charades. Or put an end to the empty promises and visits of celebrity politicians to the homes of the poor, creating a spectacle of their poverty. May be it is time for the data analysts to go beyond ‘what can’ and ‘cannot happen’ and focus on developing instruments that can measure ‘what should’ and ‘should not’ happen based on the aspirations and dreams of the living breathing billions on this earth. Data can be an advisor at best, it cannot and should not be the king. Might be this number- driven society is after all not ‘the next best’ thing!

 - Anumeha Verma is at present working with Jain University and believes that strategic communication plays a major role in solving development issues.