Humanity in Human Data

“Treat human data with humanity.” This was the plea from Jer Thorp, data artist and keynote speaker at GovLoop’s 4th Annual Government Communications Summit, gave to the audience.

That’s a relatively simple request, right? Turns out, not really. It’s pretty easy to get lost in the data, and forget the people that are using it, experiencing it, and learning from it. I know I’ve done it, and you probably have to. You look at interesting findings, and think ‘Huh? How ’bout that!’. But then you walk away.

Thorp encouraged us to do more. After you look at a data set, think not only about what it’s telling you but what you can do with it to help others.

There are two sides to this coin. On the one hand, it’s important to consider the negative consequences that data can have on people’s lives. As an example, Thorp showed us an article from the New York Times, which singled out a high school in Manhattan as ‘the saddest spot’ in town. That assertion was based on a study of twitter data from around the city.

As it turns out, the data was misinterpreted. But what if it hadn’t been? Thorpe asked us to consider if we’d been a student at that high school, possibly already struggling with depression or anxiety. How would we have felt, reading that? Or, how would we feel if we were parents, learning our kids were going to this school and enduring an extremely negative environment? Probably not that great. Probably anxious and alarmed.

On the other hand, your data can be used to improve people’s lives. In that same example, imagine how that information from Twitter could be used to highlight to happiest places in town, or even to urge people to help out the saddest place.

Now, if you work in the public sector, you may be more focused on this positive side of information than other data scientists. But even still, Thorp would say you can do more to insert humanity into your data. He offered another example, also focused on Twitter data.

When people go to Vegas, or really anywhere exciting, it’s not uncommon for them to tweet something along the lines of “Just landed in Vegas! Party city here I come!” It’s a way of letting their network know where they are, and what they’re doing. Realizing this, Thorp started tracking tweets that announced a person’s arrival or departure time. Then he created a visualization of his data, that mapped travel paths all around the world.

In itself, that was a pretty cool idea. But Thorpe took the time to think about humanity, and realized there was more that could be done with that data than simply creating a cool map. It could also illuminate travel patterns.

Who cares about travel patterns, you ask? It turns out that epidemiologists care about them. A lot. Travel patterns can reveal a lot about a disease’s transmission potential. So, not only could Thorpe’s data reveal where people go. It could also help bio-data scientists curb contagions.

Thorpe took the time, and keeps taking the time, to treat human data with humanity. As public servants, we are urged to do the same. Don’t just think about what your data is, but also what it can do. After all, what good is data about humans, if it isn’t used to help them?

Photo Credit: Jer Thorp/Flickr

This blog post is a recap of the GovDelivery 8th Annual Federal Communications Summit, where thought leaders provided insightful communication strategies and tactics to help you be more effective. For more posts about the summit, click here.


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Matthew Garlipp

“After all, what good is data about humans, if it isn’t used to help them?” Awesome last line! Definitely encapsulates Thorp’s message.