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Principles and Values Must Be Behind Good Data

"The superior man understands what is right; the inferior man understands what will sell"

Confucius (c. 551 – c. 479 BCE)

Getting better data must be the foundation of good government and community management.

To achieve this, it is essential to do more than just say, “we have to try a bit harder”. It is also not the case of saying, “what we have is good, but we can always get a bit better”.

Getting good data must be grounded on understanding what is happening, not seeking justification for preconceived ideas or just to fit existing methods of analysis.

In a Sydney University Webinar organised through their Institute of Transport and Logistics Studies, Prof Phil Goodwin highlighted the problem of collecting the data that is essential to the way you look at a problem rather than the data that might illuminate unthought-of areas. He said:

"You designed a survey in order to estimate the parameters that you know you need to know because they're built into the model. You don't design the surveys to find out if they were the right specification of parameters in the first place."

We need to ensure we have the fundamental values that will hold us to the most effective community solutions.

Ground your approach on values

Confucius promoted principles and values which he claimed had been abandoned in his time. His philosophical teachings emphasised personal and governmental morality, the correctness of social relationships, justice, kindness, and sincerity.  Confucius's teachings underlie East Asian culture and society, remaining influential across China and East Asia to this day. (XX)

While “governmental morality, the correctness of social relationships, justice, kindness, and sincerity” are assumed to be a desirable part of our processes, they are factors that we do not regularly review and consider in creating new directions and projects that will ensure we are setting a more enlightened approach.

The Grattan Institute pulls no punches in, stating that by July 2021, we were in policy gridlock. In a major report, they said:

Australia could break the gridlock in policy reform by increasing the expertise and independence of the public service, reducing the number of ministerial advisers closely tied to political parties and making them more accountable, tightening controls over political donations, campaign finance, lobbying, and post-politics careers, and setting up a federal anti-corruption commission with teeth to ensure that the rules of the system are followed. (WW)

Learning from history, not a few myths from the past

Confucius is reported to have said, "Study the past if you would define the future." But we must ensure that we understand how clear and accurate our view of the past is, and that includes assessing the accuracy and completeness of our data.

Churchill’s quote “History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it” is often used as a reflection of his prodigious output, his towering presence on the world stage and his involvement in many things.

Documenting history from one person’s perspective is important, but we need to get broad coverage of history which takes proven information and seeks to do more that justify our current thinking. Too often in transport, we summarise our history with a few generalisations. What’s more we calculate past trends based on previous data with no understanding of the veracity of the data. We then use the trend to predict the future.

The problem is that our use of history is often from a very narrow perspective, and the success of a policy, strategy or project is often based on opinion and anecdote.

We then compound the problem for the future by not collecting data and analysing after events to ensure that we understand the lessons we need to have learned.

Michael Caltabiano the CEO of ARRB said:

This is a critical task to properly identifying our misconceptions and failures. Confucius said "I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand." We need to “do” more, rather than just rely on innuendo and what can become myth.

Our misuse of history is not necessarily malicious; it is often misguided. It can be pursued for honourable reasons but can misunderstand the people it is trying to serve.

Confucius is a hero of data because he sought the principles and values to ensure we started asking the right questions; so that we could choose the right things to measure.

If we have the right approach we will become a beacon to effectiveness, a data hero because of the way we acted, as Confucius said:

"He who exercises government by means of his virtue may be compared to the north polar star, which keeps its place, and all the stars turn towards it."


(XX) Wikipedia

(WW) 2021 Grattan Institute “Gridlock: removing barriers to policy reform”


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. Connect with John on LinkedIn.

John Reid