Data's Little Surprises Make You Wonder

Sometimes I think that the only thing you can be sure about when it comes to data is that it will surprise you. In seeing hundreds of reports per year based on surveys, polls, and, increasingly, big data visualizations, I seldom see a report without noting that I would have expected a particular data point would have been higher or lower.

I try not to get depressed about my abilities as a prognosticator. Sometimes I view the surprise as a learning moment. Sometimes I stoop to the natural approach for mere humans, and I say the data must be flawed.

Over the past couple of months I've been surprised by our own data here on All Analytics. The last two Quick Polls didn't turn out quite the way I expected. I do acknowledge that any online poll isn't nearly as precise as a well-crafted survey. You even could argue that any online poll has a margin for error of maybe 50%. But I look at a such a poll as a way to get at least a basic sense of what people feel.

One of the polls was launched in August, Global Bang for the Byte. I was pleasantly surprised to see 210 respondents sharing their opinions about which analytics-based application area promises the greatest societal benefits. Then, with all of the talk about self-driving cars that promise to allow you to tweet and text your way to work in the morning, I was afraid that many in the A2 community might vote for autonomous vehicles as some vital global solution.

However, most of you listed agriculture/food, cancer research, and public safety as the best targets for data-driven applications. Thank you for having your hearts in the right place.

My surprise bordered on shock in the recent-concluded Quick Poll, Those Citizen Data Scientists, which asked whether your organization sees a need for business people who learn the basics of analytics technology or partner with trained analytics pros.

Please understand that in the months we've been discussing the concept of citizen data scientists I have encountered a few managers who are implementing the idea, a few who are lukewarm on it, and others who have been outraged. Yet, 56.5 percent of poll respondents viewed the idea as a way to close the data science talent gap, and another 21.7% say citizen data science will make sense in the future. The anti's said "bah humbug" only 15.2% of the time.

If forced to interpret the results of the citizen data scientist poll, I would assume that those endorsing the concept recognize that there is plenty of data work to go around and that those business managers who take crash courses in using analytics tools will be supplementing, not replacing those experienced data sciences who have earned multiple advanced degrees.

Yet, that's just speculation; I'm left to wonder. I suppose that data that meets our expectations largely just validates our pre-conceived notions -- and yes, we all have such notions -- but that the great benefits of a surprise in data is that it creates wonder, urging us to look deeper as we ponder the "why" behind the numbers.

Now, it's time for our next Quick Poll, Project Pitfalls. Tell your peers what you think is the greatest threat to the success of an analytics project.

James M. Connolly, Editor of All Analytics

Jim Connolly is a versatile and experienced technology journalist who has reported on IT trends for more than two decades. As editor of All Analytics he writes about the move to big data analytics and data-driven decision making. Over the years he has covered enterprise computing, the PC revolution, client/server, the evolution of the Internet, the rise of web-based business, and IT management. He has covered breaking industry news and has led teams focused on product reviews and technology trends. Throughout his tech journalism career, he has concentrated on serving the information needs of IT decision-makers in large organizations and has worked with those managers to help them learn from their peers and share their experiences in implementing leading-edge technologies through publications including Computerworld. Jim also has helped to launch a technology-focused startup, as one of the founding editors at TechTarget, and has served as editor of an established news organization focused on technology startups and the Boston-area venture capital sector at MassHighTech. A former crime reporter for the Boston Herald, he majored in journalism at Northeastern University.

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Re: Strategic guideposts?
  • 10/17/2016 9:48:22 PM


Terry writes

I enjoy watching the polls here and elsewhere, but I treat them a bit like the weather report. In other words, they reflect the temperature or humidity of that moment. They're not necessarily good indicators of what came before or will come after. But as a temperature-taking exercise, polls are good. I'm just not sure I'd use them for lots of strategic decisions.


I've been mildly amazed to see how much political polling has been developing in terms of predictive accuracy.

Included in this assessment is the emergence of poll-tracking methodologies. Just this evening I read an interesting discussion of the one used by the Talking Points Memo website, which gives some insight into the contours of the algorithms that these tracking systems use.

I've been following TPM's poll-tracking analysis because it feeds into an electoral vote scoreboard that's updated at least on a daily basis.


Re: Strategic guideposts?
  • 10/17/2016 5:57:03 PM

In defense of the above chart, we have gotten really good at forcasting the week in weather.  I remember when it was a real crap shoot.  If we could only forcast it a month in advance then we would really have something. 

I think the biggest threat and what will always be the biggest threat to analytics is politics. 


Re: Strategic guideposts?
  • 10/17/2016 2:47:21 PM

I guess that in the end a poll can spur us to think about an issue or a trend and to then look a little closer at it (perhaps looking for more tested research). Or, sometimes they're just good to launch conversation.


Re: Strategic guideposts?
  • 10/17/2016 2:39:01 PM

Yes, it does seem polls, expecially those with smaller numbers of participants are going to reflect speculation in large numbers, while even well crafted ones aren't going to be guaranteed winners when guessing the future or an event where there are large variables to be considered.

Strategic guideposts?
  • 10/17/2016 12:03:26 PM

I enjoy watching the polls here and elsewhere, but I treat them a bit like the weather report. In other words, they reflect the temperature or humidity of that moment. They're not necessarily good indicators of what came before or will come after. But as a temperature-taking exercise, polls are good. I'm just not sure I'd use them for lots of strategic decisions.