we have become obsessed with data

we have become obsessed with data.

12-04-2021MDB files

I know someone who assiduously gathers data, coronavirus data. In a quaint, old-fashioned manner, these are not data which have been amassed from digital sources, combined for data analytics and then been processed for spreadsheet presentation and graphics display. These are not the raw material of some big data exercise, they are small data, everyday virus data. They are written down. In an exercise book.

These are freely available data. They are everyday because they appear every day. Well, nearly every day, except on Sundays or when the health ministry’s websites are “undergoing maintenance” or, more likely, just haven’t been updated or have simply crashed.

They are, therefore, data that can be collected from everyday sources, such as newspapers. One would suggest that never before in the history of data, have so much data filled so many media spaces. If we had been expected, by virtue of omnipotent and ubiquitous digitalisation, to have been converted into a data society, here is the living proof that we have been.

Or rather, the proof is that we have become obsessed with data. They guide everything, not because we have any wish for them to do so, but because administrations are guided, which means that we are as well.

Epidemiologists didn’t invent data, but they could well have done. Data for pandemics or lesser health crises have been key for many a long year. How often have we heard politicians say that they will be guided by science, by scientists and by data? Many times. As a result, the social contract between government and society has been redefined over the past year.

The theory of social contract has it that individuals consent to surrender certain freedoms and to submit to authority in exchange for the protection of their rights and the maintenance of social order. This theory goes to the very heart of systems of government, especially in democracies, where consent is willing.

Because the social contract is so fundamental, even if most of us never even think about it, there are occasions when it can appear to be if not broken, then subject to amendment.
And so it has been because of the virus and the data. In normal times, i.e. non-pandemic times, the social contract is adapted according to all manner of data, economic most obviously.

While there might therefore be opposition to what follows as a consequence of negative economic data, this is not opposition founded on what has been bred because of the virus data. Governments are using the data to control societies.

This is an ill-conceived argument because the social contract necessarily has to reflect certain extreme events; war is another example.

But while there isn’t the motivation to control for control’s sake, there has to be a reciprocal arrangement - and that is that the data are accurate and that government actions can be shown to be in accordance with what they indicate.

In general terms, there is an acceptance that this is the case. There are clear cases where there isn’t acceptance, such as the criteria applied (or not applied) for ordering the closure of bar and restaurant interiors, but for the most part we accept and we consent.

There are, however, occasions when authorities can be caught out. The following example is only a minor one, but it is one that didn’t just occur to me. The person who writes down data in a book raised it with me. It had to do with an observation some days ago by the Balearic government’s advisor on coronavirus “de-escalation”.

Making a comparison with data for two consecutive weekends, she said that there had been a fifty per cent rise in the number of new cases. My friend, questioning this, looked at her figures. This wasn’t so. My own data collection said the same. The rise was in the order of twenty-five per cent.

This was reported in the media and just taken as read, when a follow-up question querying the accuracy of the percentage rise should have been why data for two weekends were being compared. How relevant is this? It becomes relevant, I would suggest, because we are currently in something of a holding pattern data-wise.

The data are far from being extreme, but because there is the total obsession with them, the messaging can be prone to exaggeration. An advisor seemingly having got her own government’s data mixed up is one form of exaggeration, another is how the media treat them.

Last week, there were two consecutive days when new cases increased. In isolation, these increases were quite notable, and so the messages were of a rise. These then had to be revised when there was a decrease.

Data can’t be taken in isolation, while there is also the need to appreciate nuances. The social contract requires accuracy and it also demands interpretation, and that applies across the board. It must do, because data obsession is total.

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