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Establishing Anything but Average

It is well-known that there are three essential elements on which you judge a service or product: Its price, the speed of delivery, and the quality.  There is also a well-known axiom, that you can only have the best from two out of three.

Since data is the foundation of our understanding of problems that we are trying to solve and how we identify the value of our proposed solutions. The collection, management and use of data in transport policy issues and infrastructure development have, for too long, focused on price and speedy delivery at the high expense of quality.

We are spending billions of dollars, supposedly to improve the efficiency and living standards of our communities, based on a barely average approach to ensuring that we start on the right foot with useful data.

The private industries now have many good examples of how they have perused detailed and accurate data to improve their profitability.  Government’s must learn from this in order to achieve long-term community benefits.

Sadly, there are three ways in which Government data, and how we use it, can be considered only “average” at best.

Report Card: Must Put In More Effort 

Our data is “average” in the sense of being ordinary or mediocre.

It starts at the beginning when we define the things we want to measure. Too often it is to fit preconceived ideas or a simplistic measurement of a small part of a complicated issue.  

We then haggle to get the lowest price without considering what this does to the quality.

Once the numbers are in, we often just take them at face value, ignoring (or certainly not paying for) the time and effort necessary to ensure transparent and credible results. Concerned professionals have told me that up to half the data collected by governments is worthless, or even worse, it is totally misleading.

The situation is even worse in how we compile, store and make data available. In many cases, we just file the data away or also hide it within organisations.  

Good data will not come from just good intentions or project management that shouts harder in order to get an impossible mix of price, timing and cost. It will only come from an informed and resourced approach that respects the value of doing it right in the first place.

Average Numbers Are Not The Whole Answer 

The advent of big data has erroneously led to a belief that an extensive collection of numbers (which are then averaged) will lead to an accurate and complete understanding of issues and therefore the solutions we should adopt.

The large databases problem may obscure the real issues which can be activities at the extremities. For example:

  1. they can hide false readings
  2. they might be measuring something different to what you think
  3. they may not be recording a representative sample and an average figure  

Big data can be a kilometre wide but only a millimetre thick: it can have a massive number of records of one aspect of an issue which fails to measure the diversity and complexity of a problem.  Even if the numbers do cover a range of activities, we then average them which blurs the diversity and the extremes.

Average “Analysis” 

How often have we seen one “statistic” used as defining the whole problem?  No statistic should be used without ensuring it has been analysed carefully to check its integrity, not only in recording what we think it is, but also whether it does represent what people are claiming it to show.

The reason we have peer-reviewed papers, conferences and journals is to challenge how we came to any conclusion.  Yet “statistics” are not challenged enough.  

Data is like food; it can provide nourishment, but it can also be poisonous if it is: intentionally toxic aimed at distorting the truth; it is “off” because it is not accurately recording what you think it is, or simply not suited to the people who are taking it.

The core of that problem was expressed in 1934 by TS Eliot when he wrote the Poem 'Choruses from the Rock' and said in part:

Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

Let’s not create the environment where we must add a line to Eliot’s poem saying

“Where is the information we have lost in data?”

Conclusion 

Good data will not come from one action or just good intentions.  We need an ongoing discussion and evaluation of how and what is being collected and how it is being used.

We are starting a conversational series “Anything but Average”; by constructively reviewing examples of the collection and use (and misuse) of data, sharing ideas, and identifying proper research, we hope to create a spirit of respect and understanding of the right way to go about collecting and using data.

You can join the conversation via our Anything But Average LinkedIn Page.

References and Further Reading 

T. S. Eliot “The Rock”.  Publisher: Faber and Faber Limited; First Edition (1934) ASIN: B002F8OJMU 

The End of Average Unlocking Our Potential by Embracing What Makes Us Different by L. Todd Rose © 2016. Published by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. 

 “Wit & Wisdom.” The Week, no. 1014, Dennis Publishing Ltd., Mar. 2015, p. 23. 

Author

John Reid

Managing Director, Austraffic

From the beginning of his career in local government and then when he established Austraffic in 1983, John realised that data collection is not just about numbers but about understanding people and the activities that serve the community's needs.  Poor or even bad data is counter-productive.  Even if results fit our preconceived ideas that doesn’t mean it is accurate.

John has seen how good data expands our perceptions and thinking and can be surprising in its results.

John Reid