Big data or thin data research is incomplete unless complemented with thick data
Are we humans or data points? Over the last decade, quantification of human nature has been the primary aim of companies. Instead of understanding human nature, they have invested in simplifying it. Big data has been about extracting the minutest detail to understand consumer patterns and translate them into successful sales models. But as profitable capitalising on big data has been, conglomerates have often seen setbacks for misreading market signals. More companies are getting it wrong than right. Much like economics, the irrationality of consumer choice is preventing the creation of a perfect model even with scores of data.
And, that is the reason why humanities is blending with science. The amalgamation of humanities and data has led to a new class of researchers, besides data scientists, gain notoriety in the corporate hierarchy. Ethnography or study of people’s lives and culture is not a new phenomenon, but digital ethnography is coming of age given the adventures or misadventures of a select few.
“Data that cannot be quantified is thick data,” says Tricia Wang, Global technology ethnographer and co-founder, Constellate Data. Wang was a key speaker at the recent Teradata conference held in Nice. “You can do sentiment analysis and quantify emotions, but you cannot understand them from looking at a number. I call qualitative data, thick data, as I wanted to make something that sounds just as important and as sexy as big data,” she adds.
Wang gives an example of how the best of companies can go wrong in reading data. Discussing the end of her previous employer, Finnish giant Nokia, she says that despite repeated warnings it could not gather the role smartphones are to play in developing markets. Myopic vision and inability to adapt, reduced Nokia’s market share to 4% in 2014, from 35% a decade ago. She says looking for an expected trend was Nokia’s biggest mistake. “The whole point of thick data is to find out unexpected behaviour. You don’t know what you are going to find out. When it comes to humans there is no natural way to act.”
Not every company is Nokia. Careful thick data has been responsible for the growth of Netflix. The company used ethnographers to gauge what people consumed and charted out strategies to win over a bigger share. Binge watching was one of the success stories of the use of thick data by Netflix.
Most experts hold the view that companies need to graduate beyond simple data analytics. Christian Madsbjerg, author of the book Sensemaking, highlights that today the world has become so focused on STEM-based knowledge—science, technology, engineering, math —and the abstractions of big data that alternative frameworks of explaining reality have been rendered close to obsolete.
“Of course, the hard sciences are a good way of explaining quite a lot on our planet, namely material nature. They are tremendously effective at explaining chemistry, engineering or physics, for example. But they are not good at explaining us,” he says. But the bone of contention for ethnographers is evolving technology and firms getting more from Internet of Things solutions. A connected individual would always be easy to decipher. Wang, however, avers that the field may not change much even with augmented/ virtual reality devices. “Internet was supposed to end racism, make people more informed and free. It hasn’t done any of that. I doubt that looking at a refugee camp with a VR headset would make people more empathetic. It will have an impact, but not as much,” she says.
Though she is right that internet did not get us to a more open world, it did provide us with the Arab Spring. Ethnography will make IoT more involved and perhaps even drive the real revolution for IoT. But that involvement would also mean the rise of digital ethnography. We would still need people like Wang to travel and connect and tell us ground realities. As, with any technology, we would need less and less of them.