Suddenly, we love data. It’s the hero in our TV shows, saves our baseball teams, generates our art, and is the topic of the moment at Davos. Our obsession borders on religion: we believe data is infallible, containing a single, emergent truth (the Guardian’s Datablog’s subtitle is “Facts are Sacred”). If our businesses or institutions are failing we say they need more data.
But when we embrace “Big Data” we neglect the operations and environments we hope the data will improve. Which is unfortunate because data’s value is determined by how well we capitalize on the intelligence it produces. If a film studio identifies a new trend they’re limited by how long a film takes to produce. If a retail outlet discovers that peanut butter buyers can also be sold bananas, they’re limited by how quickly employees can rearrange shelves.
Adding more data to the mix doesn’t help if infrastructures aren’t upgraded. If we ignore the systems we aim to improve, the data we crave is worth only a fraction of its potential value.
For those of us investing in or producing data, the bottleneck is our users, culture, and infrastructure. We’d be wise to learn from examples in other fields and scenarios. Take Dubai, for instance, where skyscrapers sprung up while sewage systems stagnated.
No One Wants their Name on a Sewer
Dubai’s record-setting skyline emerged over the last decades, fueled by rising fuel prices. Wikipedia lists 195 skyscrapers built or under construction in the once quiet city, whose population has more than quintupled in the last 30 years.
But all is not rosy: while the skyline was funded the sewage system was ignored. In 2008, The Wall Street Journal wrote, “By one estimate, some $300 billion in new projects are going up in Dubai in the next 10 years… But Dubai’s single, 30-year-old sewage-treatment plant isn’t keeping up. Sewage output here is rising by 25% a year.” The 160-floor Burj Khalifa alone was designed to house 25,000 people, nearly a 10th of Dubai’s total population when their sewage treatment plant was built.