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The Scourge of “Datalitism”

Data: It’s for Yuppies and Hipsters.

That’s the message I’m hearing lately from more than a few companies that deal in data. It seems like more often than not, the messaging around data is, frankly, elitist — based on an assumption that data is something for people of means. Because I’m a sucker for a good portmanteau, I’m calling this phenomenon of elitism in the data space “datalitism.”

I had been noticing examples of datalitism for a while, but Google’s recent “Project Glass” video really brought it home. In this video, which previews a technology that is undeniably cool, a young man of means wakes up and accomplishes a number of very hip tasks by interacting with data via Google Glasses. These interactions are elegant and useful, which is why I think the video is successful at sharing a vision for the technology. But the context is pure datalitism.


Here’s a sample of what our Project Glass protagonist uses his Google Glasses to do:

  • Survey his collection of personal electronics equipment
  • Make plans to meet a friend at NYC’s Strand Books
  • Navigate a walking path through Greenwich Village
  • Set a reminder to buy tickets for Monsieur Gayno, an obscure (read: hispter-approved) French ukulele player
  • Navigate to Strand’s music section to find a book on playing ukulele
  • Meet up with his buddy Paul to get coffee at a food truck
  • Check in via Google Places at said food truck
  • Take a picture of graffiti and share it on Google+
  • Video chat with a pretty girl and serenade her with aforementioned ukulele as the sun sets over NYC

Overall, I like the video. It just seems a little closed-circuited to communicate with people who hang out at Strand Books and meet for street coffee while running ukulele errands. If we kept following this dude is there any doubt that soon we’d be watching him sip a PBR in a hip dive bar as he talks about his new fixie?

For another example of datalitism, see Daytum. This is a very innovative site that lets you track any sort of data you want and turns it into simple and clear visual representations. Seems like there’s a lot of potential usefulness here. And Daytum’s how-to video demonstrates that indeed there is — by showing you how to track…wait for it…your lattes. Oh, and your cappuccinos.


The irony I see here is that the movement for more and better data is based on the principle that this data can benefit everyone. The notion of the “Democratization of Data” (as many, including Google, have called it) is that data holds promise for all of us, to make our lives easier and richer — presumably not just if we are young urban professionals, but also if we happen to live outside of the cooler New York and San Francisco neighborhoods, and even (gasp!) if we work in something other than the technology industry. Yet for some reason the vanguard of this movement seems intent on speaking only to the latte-drinking set.

Here’s an idea: instead of a hipster paradise, base the next cool visionary video for a Google product in a small town, with the kids of blue collar families coordinating a homerun derby and recording and comparing stats in real time. Instead of featuring Zooey Deschanel ordering tomato soup delivery, let the next iPhone ad star a mother in a suburban grocery store using Siri to find the best price for milk (I know, fat chance).

I realize that now, for the people most immersed in the data movement, one latte is a fairly standard unit of measurement. All I’m saying is that it would be wise — and not difficult — for these companies to think outside the box a bit when communicating about the exciting advances and products in the world of data. Not to mention that doing so would be consistent with the fundamental principle of the movement: that data is for everyone, regardless of your interest in ukuleles.

This post originally appeared on my personal blog.

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Profile Photo GovLoop

Great post – and there’s no reason this should be the case. Let’s show use of big data to help normal people on big issues in their life

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Patrick Fiorenza

Really enjoyed this post, Jeremy! Touched on a lot of great points. I’m with Steve – need to show impact on daily lives, and how organizations can really leverage big data.

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Stephen Peteritas

While a lot of tech ads theses days are not about the most practical uses, they play towards what most people find important and evoke emotional response. While using data to find a cheaper gallon of milk is practical and useful I’m not going to comb through data to make it happen. The things that people care about are friends, music and other “hipster” things. I’m saying that’s right but ultimately companies have to sell off what people will buy which is celebrity faces and hipster mumbo jumbo. In the end though we’re still getting data and tech in these people’s hands which isn’t all bad.

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Dennis Snyder

There was an interesting story about 2 days ago discussing how Target uses historical purchasing data to target (sorry, intended pun I couldn’t resist) advertising to likely purchasers. The example was a particular skin cream used by pregnant women to help with stretch marks. The problem is you’re a teenage girl who buys this cream and your father sees the targeted advertising in the mail and the teen pregnancy accusation/denial process begins.

How far is far enough? While this group promotes data mining and social media as useful and productive tools, there’s always a catch. How mindful are we of unintended consequences and do we really have a plan to test them? And how realistic is the level of effort? Most discussions revolve around the have-nots being left behind, but there’s more examination required to ensure the data and its analysis are accurate while being used responsibly.

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Dennis R. Still

Jeremy,

Great piece about the potential elitist nature of “big data”. It really drove home for me things I have talked about here in GovLoop and elsewhere – we can’t just think about this as bigger, bigger, and bigger datasets. We need to think about it in terms of impact on individuals within our particular client/customer/constituency. The fact is that a small town administrator can take 25 survey responses about the new stop light in town, and draw meaningful conclusions from that “localized data” is remarkable. Empowering people to use data that helps inform decision making. I can’t stress enough that it doesn’t have to be about the costs associated with collecting more and more data, it is about the analyses we do with the data we have the ability to collect. Wisdom comes from the analysis (human beings mostly), not the data itself.

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Profile Photo Emily Clifton Stump

While I think that there is a certain competence and clarity that comfort with data can allow a person to have, I agree that datalitism is in existence. My father works as a refrigeration technician for chain grocery stores, but is an immensely knowledgeable person in areas related to HVAC such as control theory, integrated processing and networking. His ability to use basic refrigeration data collected at the site of sensors throughout the store to understand the technical issues of these complex systems is amazing – and yet, there are some who would consider his job to be “just” a technician job, not “worthy” of college-level analytical skills or any other number of elitist comments he’s heard over the years regarding his level of formal education. I see the opening up of data as an accessible aspect of everyday life for anybody to be an accomplishment this (admittedly math-phobic) society could be proud of, but it’s not incentivized at this juncture because there are misconceptions about “who” might “use” the tool in question to analyze data. Hipsters present an easy target, because there are many out there and the stereotypical things they do (drink coffee! take a photo and use instagram to edit it! update their fb status! check in!) are meaningful to many people as a result.

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Gadi Ben-Yehuda

I’m only now seeing this article, but I feel it deserves a response. Perhaps I’ll respond in greater length in a separate blog post, but will preview my sentiment here:

This is nonsense. It’s actually worse than nonsense–nonsense is usually harmless, while this piece wallows in bias and misinformation. Take this sentence:

Here’s an idea: instead of a hipster paradise, base the next cool visionary video for a Google product in a small town, with the kids of blue collar families coordinating a homerun derby and recording and comparing stats in real time.


Why on Earth should Google, or any other company, base their ad or their product on small-town america? According to the CIA World Book, 82 percent of Americans live in cities and suburbs. In fact, the population of New York City, just north of 8 million souls, is greater than the population of all but 11 states. The top five cities contain more people than all but top three states. We’re an urban nation, and to hold out rural America as somehow more real, or the rural experience as somehow more authentic is to deny the authenticity of a majority of Americans’ lives.

Add into that mix the racial and ethnic tones of your argument (want to guess where the vast majority of immigrants and African-Americans live?), and the picture you paint of the little kid seems stuck in an idealized picture of the 1950s.

But there’s more. Stats from homerun derbies don’t matter–not in the way that, say, knowing if a train is out or if it’s going to rain does. These later data help people make decisions in a way that batting averages don’t.

Further, I don’t understand your superior attitude when you talk about Starbucks. There are more than 8200 stores in the US, each state. With the exceptions of Vermont and Wyoming, each state has more than 10 stores. Idaho–Idaho!–has the 13th highest ratio of Starbucks to people. And it has only one city with more than 100,000 people in it.

Finally, there’s the question of what this data is for, anyway. I would argue that data is useful only if people can put it to use. That is, does it help them understand their lives and their world in a way that can guide future decision. That requires two things: first, it requires so many choices that you need data to help you decide, and second, it requires the ability to collect, encode, present, and read the data. The truth is, in the small towns you mythologize, I’m just not sure that the choices are so many that the people who live there need Google Glasses. And if they do, then they’ll need to have a government that collects and encodes the data, private companies to create presentations, different companies to provide connectivity and devices to display the data at moments of decision, and the education in how to read the data.

I would agree that “data is for everybody” — I would also say that “physics is for everybody” and so are lattes. And by the way, so is the ukulele.

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Jeremy Cluchey

Just seeing this months-old negative post from Gadi Ben-Yehuda. Not sure how I missed it. In addition to mischaracterizing the above post and somehow finding a way to insinuate the presence of racial insensitivity where it does not exist, it also completely misses and/or ignores the point. The time for a full response is long past at this point, but I’ll just say this: homerun derby stats are just as valid a data point as latte consumption, and until the Big Data companies recognize that marketing data to everyone makes sense on every level, they’ll be participating in the datalitism Gadi seems so intent on defending.

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Gadi Ben-Yehuda

Hi, Jeremy. I’d like to know how I mischaracterize or ignore your arguments.

What you say you are arguing is that “ It seems like more often than not, the messaging around data is, frankly, elitist — based on an assumption that data is something for people of means.” and one of his data points is “cool, a young man of means wakes up and accomplishes a number of very hip tasks by interacting with data via Google Glasses.”

It’s possible to argue (and I would) that the “cool young man of means” is not really so “of means” unless “of means” translates to: has no car, spends money on music and books, lives in an efficiency in New York, uses an old-timey coffee maker, and has a MacBook. I don’t see anything terrifically “meainingful” about that.

A further examination of Jeremy’s post reveals how biased he seems to be against city-dwellers. Let’s leave aside the adjectives and particulars of what Google Glasses does and focus on the tasks and see if it supports Jeremy’s claim of Datalitism:

Here’s a sample of what our Project Glass protagonist uses his Google Glasses to do:

  • Survey his collection of personal electronics equipment (does this refer to the opening graphic? If so, it should read: Check the weather, his contacts, and some other free application data. No purchases, other than the google glasses themselves required.)
  • Make plans to meet a friend
  • Navigate a walking path through his neighborhood
  • Set a reminder to buy tickets for a music event
  • Navigate inside a retail store
  • Meet up with his buddy for a drink
  • Check in at the location where he got the drink
  • Take a picture and share it with friends
  • Video chat with his girlfriend

Pardon my sarcasm, but, really? Is it Datalitism to make plans with friends using social media and mobile devices? Is it hipsterific to buy tickets for a music event? Is taking a picture and sharing it with friends not something that diners all over the country do every day? And video chatting with his girlfriend? How is that elitist?

No one can defend elitism, by its definition it’s something to be avoided. But I am defending the practice of a private company (Google, in this case) to create products and frame messaging that will appeal to the greatest number of potential customers. Further, I argue that the data the matters most, to governments, private companies, and individuals, is data that helps them made decisions. Those are the data sets that should get first priority. Latte consumption–if it helps people understand and control their purchases and diet–falls into the category. Yet, Jeremy is dismissive of this. Perhaps if it had read “pork rind consumption” or “Coca Cola consumption,” Jeremy would have been more on board.

I imagine that Jeremy and I both do have a goal in common: that more people understand the value and utility of data. I just think that he’s misdiagnosing the problem and from that, prescribing the wring medicine.

Perhaps, Jeremy, you’d like to do an online chat about this?

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Jeremy Cluchey

Gadi,

I believe your misunderstanding of my post stems from your apparent belief that I am arguing data companies should only market to people who do not live in cities. In fact, the point I make is that these companies should expand the universe of those to whom they market to include people who live in all different locations and have a variety of routines. They’ve done cities — at least a specific type of city-dweller. I’m encouraging them to cast a wider net.

I don’t think this message is buried in the post. At least, the other commenters on this site and others seem to have grasped it. But the straw man you battle against in your comments suggests that this thesis was lost on you. I hope this helps to clarify.

I live in the city and I love it. My life is actually pretty similar to that characterized by a lot of these marketing approaches. Replace the Google Glasses guy’s trip to the bookstore with a diaper run, and he could be me. It’s nice to be marketed to — but foolish, in my opinion, to think that my lifestyle is the only one for which easy access to and use of data would be valuable. That was the point of this post, nothing more.

Your misunderstanding of the article is fine, but what I object to is the personal nature of your negative comments. To suggest racial insensitivity in a post like this is just beyond the pale. I guess you meant the “pork rind consumption” comment to be a jab as well, though I think it says more about your views of non-city dwellers than it does about my own beliefs or values. Thank you, but I’m not interested in participating in an online chat with someone for whom this passes for civil discourse.

I work in the federal government and place a high value on public data and what it has allowed us all to do, from improving shipping and transit efficiency to tracking Recovery Act dollars to monitoring the path of hurricanes on our smartphones. When it comes to increasing the access of the public to the power of data, I’m certain we have a common goal here. Just very different ways of talking about it.

-Jeremy

*Opinions expressed here are my own

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Gadi Ben-Yehuda

Jeremy.

I believe that you believe what you’re saying, but the words you chose to convey that sentiment were. . . not the best.

Try reading this passage from your article and listen to the derisiveness you heap on a select few of your compatriots (for your convenience, I’ve bolded the more egregious language):

The irony I see here is that the movement for more and better data is based on the principle that this data can benefit everyone. The notion of the “Democratization of Data” (as many, including Google, have called it) is that data holds promise for all of us, to make our lives easier and richer — presumably not just if we are young urban professionals, but also if we happen to live outside of the cooler New York and San Francisco neighborhoods, and even (gasp!) if we work in something other than the technology industry. Yet for some reason the vanguard of this movement seems intent on speaking only to the latte-drinking set.

Here’s an idea: instead of a hipster paradise, base the next cool visionary video for a Google product in a small town, with the kids of blue collar families coordinating a homerun derby and recording and comparing stats in real time. Instead of featuring Zooey Deschanel ordering tomato soup delivery, let the next iPhone ad star a mother in a suburban grocery store using Siri to find the best price for milk (I know, fat chance).

Why the scorn? And again, I ask: why should a private company forsake a lucrative market for a harder sell? You say “big data is for everyone!” and I agree with that, but you seem to go a step further and ask why urbanites are getting all the goodies as if there were some nefarious machinations. In truth, it’s just capitalism: companies want to make money, and there’s a lot more of it to be made in cities right now than beyond the urban enclaves.

I grew up in a small town (Butler, PA, to be exact, a pretty nice small town) and it wasn’t hard to know where the best place to buy milk was–there were only a few places where you could buy milk. This goes back to my thesis: data should be used to help you make choices. And in a city you have a lot of choices, while in smaller towns, you have fewer choices.

Consider: the nearest Ethiopian restaurant is 28 miles from my boyhood home! Indian? 10 miles, Thai, 19. A search for “pizza” near my home in Butler returned 34 results. When I search for “pizza” near my home in Washington, DC, I get more than 7,000 results. I could eat at every one of the pizza places in my old neighborhood in a single year–if I had pizza for dinner only once every ten days. If I tried to do that where I live now, I’d have to go out for Pizza once an hour every day–assuming I got four hours of sleep a night.

That’s the kind of dizzying choice for which I’d like the help of big data.

I can understand that you take umbrage at the close reading of your article. Its passages may have been written with the intent of sounding fresh and witty (one might say: hip?), but they struck my ears as unnecessarily snide, and the point they made to me was that you think of those people in the ad (those people!) are somehow. . . other, foreign, not-our-kind. How else is one to read about the young, urban-dwelling, PBR-buying, food-truck enjoying, latte-drinking set? You talk about civility, but denigrate others fairly quickly.

Look, my point is this: if you want to argue about datalitism, tell me why you think either (1) private companies don’t face a choice in whom to market their initial products to–that is, they have ample means to market to everyone all at once, or else argue that (2) it makes sense financially for private companies to market to smaller markets where there is less demand for their products or (3) smaller towns represent more lucrative markets than cities do.

If you want to make fun of hipsters, well, it’s been done before.

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Jeremy Cluchey

Gadi,

You are reading so far between the lines of this post you’re finding things that are not there. Now you have reframed your critique as a defense of Google against my unthinkable crime of suggesting they expand the scope of their marketing. I am sure a vulnerable company like that is heartened to know they have you to defend them from bloggers posing ideas for how they could engage more users. The free market is certainly safer for it.

I see you have backed off your irresponsible claims of racial insensitivity, at least. It’s becoming clear to me that persuading you of your misreading of this post — let alone eliciting an acknowledgement from you that you crossed a line, arguably several, in the course of this discussion — is not likely to be fruitful, so I suggest we wrap this up. Best of luck.

Jeremy

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