Answering the right question

Turning data into intelligence is a complex, careful and skilled process that is often completely wasted. I mean totally, wholly unappreciated because we miss a step; we don’t sit down at the start and say “What do people need to do with this?”. And the recipient, the customer, looks at the results and says “This doesn’t answer my question!”

The question that a lot of infographics and charts actually answer is “How can I show the data I’ve got?” which is not what the customer needs. So we patiently work through the customer’s requirements until we reach the answer to their original question, but in a perfect world we would have cut that process to the bone by starting with the question in the first place.

In local government we don’t have the luxury of giving much resource to each single follow up enquiry, especially as we have so much reporting to do to external examiners and auditors, but we also don’t have the option not to provide what our leaders ask for. I’m aware of many data teams who are stretched beyond belief with the effort of keeping everybody informed and all the external requirements compliant.

So while there’s a lot of discussion out there about meeting the technical challenges for big data, open data, small data, personal data … that’s fine and all, but there’s less conversation around a different type of challenge, which is this: Why aren’t we answering the right questions?

If you follow my personal blog you’ll know I specialise in simplifying things down until they squeak … but I just tell it how I see it. Certainly in my work environment we want to know whether the things we do are the right things, whether we are doing them right, whether we are paying a reasonable amount for them, and whether we are reaching the people who need to be helped.

I think the solution is (or begins with) communicating the real question and the reason the question was asked. That’s something for the customer side to consider. For the data people – we need to understand the challenges our customers are trying to address before we can spot whether they’ve failed to ask the question they should have asked.

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