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You Are What You Measure


By Josh Hemann

A couple of weeks ago I read a blog post by Scott Berkun, who writes about innovation and startups, among other things. His post, You Are Not What You Measure, had a refreshingly recalcitrant view on data’s role in life. This short post has an ending with a bite:

The minefield is allowing data to be a god. Data is dead. Numbers don’t know why they were created. Data, if granted the power, will lord over people mercilessly without any awareness that it’s out of date, behind the times, or having the opposite effect its creators intended.

It is wise to be informed by data, but only a fool is data’s slave. You are more than what is measured about you.

I love it.

Reading this reminded me of a central tenant in Eli Parser’s book The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding From You: data collected about you through your (mostly) on-line life leads to an internet that is skewed towards what various companies think you want to know and do. (The NY Times has a nice summary of the issues raised by the book.) Through no intention of our own, we become confined by (slaves to?) our data exhaust.

While Berkun’s post resonated with me, the title definitely did not. I found myself wrestling with this idea that data can sometimes say more about the one doing the measuring than it does the subject being measured. So, yes, you are more than what your data says about you, but how much does what someone chooses to measure in the first place define that someone (which could be you)?

In thinking of a way to argue against the title I thought of ammo in Marilyn Waring and her seminal work If Women Counted. In 1975 she was voted to the New Zealand Parliament (as its youngest member) and she brought with her a fierce point of view on how the government incorrectly measured, and therefore valued, economic inputs and outputs. One of her main positions was that because the work women did was rarely measured

  1. Characterizations of the economy were misleading and led to poor decisions
  2. Women’s issues in particular were ignored because their contributions to the larger society were grossly undervalued

Waring’s story is one I find myself coming back to often when I think about data, decisions, and my role in telling stories with analytics. The very act of measurement conveys intention, it conveys what we value. So, while we are indeed more than what is measured about us, what we choose to measure speaks volumes about how we see the world and what we choose to see as problems worth addressing. In this sense, we certainly are what we measure.

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