What data can and cannot do

I just published a piece on the Guardian Datablog about ‘what data can and cannot do’, arguing that data journalists and civic data hackers should strive to cut back on data-driven hype and to cultivate a more critical literacy towards their subject matter. Here’s an excerpt.

In the early days of photography there was a great deal of optimism around its potential to present the public with an accurate, objective picture of the world. In the 19th century pioneering photographers (later to be called photojournalists) were heralded for their unprecedented documentary depictions of war scenes in Mexico, Crimea and across the US. Over a century and a half later – after decades of advertising, propaganda, and PR, compositing, enhancement and outright manipulation – we are more cautious about seeing photographs as impartial representations of reality. Photography has lost its privileged position in relation to truth. Photographs are just a part of the universe of evidence that must be weighed up, analysed, and critically evaluated by the journalist, the analyst, the scholar, the critic, and the reader.

The current wave of excitement about data, data technologies and all things data-driven might lead one to suspect that this machine-readable, structured stuff is a special case. The zeitgeist at times bears an uncannily resemblance to the optimism of a loose-knit group of scientists, social scientists, and philosophers at the start of the 20th century, who thought they could eschew value-laden narratives for an objective, fact-driven model of the world. “Facts are sacred” says the Guardian Datablog and “for a fact-based worldview” says Gapminder. The thought of tethering our reportage, analyses and reflection to chunks of data-given truth is certainly consoling. But the notion that data gives us special direct access to the way things are is – for the most part – a chimera.

Data can be an immensely powerful asset, if used in the right way. But as users and advocates of this potent and intoxicating stuff we should strive to keep our expectations of it proportional to the opportunity it represents. We should strive to cultivate a critical literacy with respect to our subject matter. While we can’t expect to acquire the acumen or fluency of an experienced statistician or veteran investigative reporter overnight, we can at least try to keep various data-driven myths from the door. To that end, here are a few reminders for lovers of data […]

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