Playing with Data

A virtual cult of the spreadsheet has formed, complete with gurus and initiates, detailed lore, arcane rituals – and an unshakable belief that the way the world works can be embodied in rows and columns of numbers and formulas.

I heard this quote from “A Spreadsheet Way of Knowledge,” written in 1984 by Steven Levy after the introduction of spreadsheet software, in a recent episode of Planet Money titled “Spreadsheets.”

As I learn more about quantitative data analysis, I’m excited about all of the things I can do with it. I enjoy thinking about the data and trying to understand how to use it. But I’m cautious. If I learned anything from studying anthropology, it was a certain amount of skepticism about data — and quantitative data in particular. Although I’m aware that even qualitative data can be heavily manipulated, and I’m grateful for what I’m learning to do with quantitative data, I remain constantly concerned about how numbers can oversimplify, obscure, and deceive. As Levy wrote:

Yet all these benefits will be meaningless if the spreadsheet metaphor is taken too much to heart. After all, it is only a metaphor. Fortunately, few would argue that all relations between people can be quantified and manipulated by formulas. Of human behavior, no faultless assumptions – and so no perfect model — can be made.

Image by Jon Newman (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Using Data

The ability to take data – to be able to understand it, to process it, to extract value from it, to visualize it, to communicate it’s going to be a hugely important skill in the next decades, not only at the professional level but even at the educational level for elementary school kids, for high school kids, for college kids. Because now we really do have essentially free and ubiquitous data. So the complimentary scarce factor is the ability to understand that data and extract value from it.

Hal Varian, The McKinsey Quarterly, January 2009