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Anecdotes and Simple Observations are Dangerous; Words and Narratives are Not.

Heather Lanthorn's picture

In a recent blog post on stories, and following some themes from an earlier talk by Tyler Cowen, David Evans ends by suggesting: “Vivid and touching tales move us more than statistics. So let’s listen to some stories… then let’s look at some hard data and rigorous analysis before we make any big decisions.” Stories, in this sense, are potentially idiosyncratic and over-simplified and, therefore, may be misleading as well as moving. I acknowledge that this is a dangerous situation.

However, there are a couple things that are frustrating about the above quote, intentional or not.

  • First, it equates ‘hard data’ with ‘statistics,’ as though qualitative (text/word) data cannot be hard (or, by implication, rigorously analysed). Qualitative twork – even when producing ‘stories’ – should move beyond mere anecdote (or even journalistic inquiry).
  • Second, it suggests that the main role of stories (words) is to dress up and humanize statistics – or, at best, to generate hypotheses for future research. This seems both unfair and out-of-step with increasing calls for mixed-methods to take our understanding beyond ‘what works’ (average treatment effects) to ‘why’ (causal mechanisms) – with ‘why’ probably being fairly crucial to ‘decision-making’ (Paluck’s piece worth checking out in this regard).

Weekly Wire: The Global Forum

Roxanne Bauer's picture

These are some of the views and reports relevant to our readers that caught our attention this week.

Big data: 4 predictions for 2014
The Guardian
"One could look back at 2013 and consider it the breakthrough year for big data, not in terms of innovation but rather in awareness. The increasing interest in big data meant it received more mainstream attention than ever before. Indeed, the likes of Google, IBM, Facebook and Twitter all acquired companies in the big data space. Documents leaked by Edward Snowden also revealed that intelligence agencies have been collecting big data in the form of metadata and, amongst other things, information from social media profiles for a decade." READ MORE


The rise of civil society groups in Africa
Africa Renewal
"Under the glaring sun of a recent Monday, an unusual group of protesters marched on the streets of Kampala, Uganda’s capital, all dressed in black “to mourn the loss of Uganda’s public money through corruption,” as some of them pointedly explained to reporters. “Return our money and resign,” read one of the slogans they brandished. Since November 2012, on the first Monday of each month, the Black Monday Movement—a coalition of local NGOs and civil society groups—has taken to the streets to highlight the effects of corruption in Uganda and to press public officials to act."  READ MORE
 

#4 from 2013: Numbers Are Never Enough (especially when dealing with Big Data)

Susan Moeller's picture

Our Top Ten Blog Posts by readership in 2013
This post was originally published on January 8, 2013


The newest trend in Big Data is the personal touch.  When both the New York Times and Fast Company have headlines that trumpet: “Sure, Big Data Is Great. But So Is Intuition.” (The Times) and “Without Human Insight, Big Data Is Just A Bunch Of Numbers.” (Fast Company) you know that a major trend is afoot.

So what’s up?

The claims for what Big Data can do have been extraordinary, witness Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson’s seminal article in October in the Harvard Business Review: “Big Data: The Management Revolution,” which began with the showstopper:  “‘You can’t manage what you don’t measure.’”  It’s hard not to feel that Big Data will provide the solutions to everything after that statement.  As the HBR article noted:  “…the recent explosion of digital data is so important. Simply put, because of big data, managers can measure, and hence know, radically more about their businesses, and directly translate that knowledge into improved decision making and performance.”

Thanksgiving Woes? IBM and Big Data May Help.

Tanya Gupta's picture

In just about a week, on Thursday November 28, people all over the United States will kick off the "holiday season" with the celebration of Thanksgiving Day. While the day's significance is both historical and profound, in modern times it consists of a lot of shopping and a big meal with family and friends gathered around the dinner table. Pre-thanksgiving is a time to be on the lookout for creative new recipes.  Sure, we can get recipes from magazines, websites and friends and while they may be special, they will not be unique.  Wouldn’t it be nice to have an app that would create a special unique recipe just for you? A delightful recipe that has never been executed before.  Well the idea is not as futuristic as it sounds. It may be here sooner than you think.  IBM and big data have a lot to do with this particular innovation.
 
Can computers be creative?  IBM thinks they can.  IBM scientists Lav R. Varshney and other members of an IBM team, have used data sets and proprietary algorithms in the daunting field of the culinary arts to develop a computational creativity system. The data sets they have used are recipes, molecular level food related data and data about the compounds, ingredients and dishes that people like and dislike.  They then developed an algorithm that produces thousands or millions of new ideas from the recipes.  The recipes are then evaluated to select the best ones that combine ingredients in a way that has never been attempted before.  Humans can interact with the system by choosing a key ingredient and the kind of cuisine.

Media (R)evolutions: China is an Internet Sleeping Giant

Kalliope Kokolis's picture

New developments and curiosities from a changing global media landscape: People, Spaces, Deliberation brings trends and events to your attention that illustrate that tomorrow's media environment will look very different from today's, and will have little resemblance to yesterday's.

This week's Media (R)evolutions: China is an Internet Sleeping Giant.


 

You Need Beautiful Art to Understand Data. Really, You Do.

Susan Moeller's picture

It’s tempting for those who work with numbers and spreadsheets, for those who live by the bottom line and whose minds run along quantitative paths to think that art exists for its own sake. It’s tempting to think of art as something nice for the wall, pleasant to look at, maybe even restorative or inspiring in its impact, but ultimately not essential to the running of the world.

Yet consider the work of University of Maryland Computer Science Prof. Ben Shneiderman. Shneiderman is the inventor of treemaps — those graphics that chart often vast quantities of hierarchical data, such as electronic health records.  He’s also famous for the eponymous “Shneiderman’s Mantra” of visual data analysis: look at an overview of the data first, then zoom and filter it, then, on demand, consider the details. 

Moneyballing Development: A Challenge to our Collective Wisdom of Project Funding

Tanya Gupta's picture
The biggest promise of technology in development is, perhaps, that it can provide us access to consistent, actionable and reliable data on investments and results.  However, somewhat shockingly, we in development have not fully capitalized on this promise as compared to the private sector.  Would you invest your precious pension hoping you will get something back but without having any reliable data on the rate of return or how risky your investment is?  If you have two job applicants, one who is a methamphetamine addict and the other is one who has a solid work history and great references, would you give equal preference to both?  If your answer to either is no, then take a look at the field of international development and consider the following:
  • Surprising lack of consistent, reliable data on development effectiveness: Among the various sectoral interventions, we have no uniformly reliable data on the effectiveness of every dollar spent.  For example of every dollar spent in infrastructure programs in sub-Saharan Africa, how many cents are effective? Based on the same assumptions, do we have a comparable number for South East Asia? In other words why don’t we have more data on possible development investments and the associated costs, benefits/returns and risks?
  • Failure to look at development effectiveness evidence at the planning stage: Very few development programs look at the effectiveness evidence before the selection of a particular intervention.  Say, a sectoral intervention A in a particular region has a history of positive outcomes (due to attributable factors such as well performing implementation agencies) as opposed to another intervention B where chances of improved outcomes are foggy.  Given the same needs (roughly) why shouldn’t we route funds to A instead of B in the planning stage? Why should we give equal preference to both based purely on need?

Privacy is so 20th Century

Sina Odugbemi's picture
Modern life is life on the grid: credit cards, smart phones, internet connections, social media presence and so on. And here is the truth: Life on the grid is life in a fishbowl erected on stilts in a bazaar. As a result, something that we once thought was important to us as citizens is not simply lost, it is irretrievably lost: it is the idea of privacy.

The concept of privacy itself is notoriously difficult to define. In reading around the subject, I found this description of it by Larry Peterman in a 1993 essay in The Review of Politics titled ‘ Privacy’s Background’:

We look upon the private as that part of our lives insulated against the communal or public broadly constructed, protected from unwarranted intrusion by others, including political authorities, and the place where, in the last resort, we can clothe ourselves in anonymity.


I think that is exactly right. It is what Grant Mindle, in an earlier essay, calls ‘concealment and seclusion’ that protected place where we can have parts of our lives that will not leak into the public arena.

Quote of the Week: Ian Bremmer

Sina Odugbemi's picture

“Around the world, the race is on between a communications revolution that empowers the individual and a data revolution designed to protect the state. This contest will play out in different countries in different ways…We can’t yet know how this race will end, but it is a mistake to assume the state can’t hold its own for years to come.”

- Ian Bremmer. Author and President of Eurasia Group, a global political risk research and consulting firm.

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