Counting the uncountable

“Not all things worth counting are countable and not all things that count are worth counting.” — Albert Einstein

(Or was it?)

Chris Dillow reviews The Tyranny of Metrics by Jerry Muller, a book about “how the obsession with quantifying human performance threatens our schools, medical care, businesses, and government.”

The Tyranny of Metrics: a review
Muller provides lots of examples of this, mostly from the US. But you’ll all have examples of your own. In universities the Research Assessment Exercise (now the REF) contributed to increased administration costs and perhaps to the replicability crisis by incentivizing the publication of mediocre research. In schools, targets can encourage teaching to the test, endless revision and a focus upon the marginal student to the neglect of both the strongest and weakest. Waiting-time targets might distort clinical priorities. Immigration targets deter foreign students and lead to the harassment of people who have lived here for decades. Sales targets encourage workers to mis-sell financial products, cook the books, or increase risk by encouraging “liars’ loans. And so on.

It’s not all bad news, though. It’s just a question of balancing the quantitative with the qualitative.

The Tyranny of Metrics is not, however, a diatribe against targets. Muller points to the experience of some US hospitals to show that metrics can work. They do so, he says, when they are “based on collaboration and peer review”:

Measurements are more likely to be meaningful when they are developed from the bottom up, with input from teachers, nurses and the cop on the beat.

In other words, metrics can succeed when they are complements to knowledge: when they organize the tacit and dispersed professional judgements of people who know ground truth.

GDPR and a Digital Protection Agency?

Ok, I know I said that I’ll stop reading articles about personal data abuses, but they just keep coming.

Silicon Valley has failed to protect our data. Here’s how to fix it
What’s been unfolding for a while now is a rolling catastrophe so obvious we forget it’s happening. Private data are spilling out of banks, credit-rating providers, email providers, and social networks and ending up everywhere.

[…]

Given that the federal government is currently one angry man with nuclear weapons and a Twitter account, and that it’s futile to expect reform or self-regulation from internet giants, I’d like to propose something that will seem impossible but I would argue isn’t: Let’s make a digital Environmental Protection Agency. Call it the Digital Protection Agency. Its job would be to clean up toxic data spills, educate the public, and calibrate and levy fines.

That sounds like a very sensible, pragmatic and effective approach, so it’s obviously going to be ignored. It was interesting reading that after hearing about another data breach yesterday, this time with a fitness app. It seems the company dealt with it appropriately though. This time.

The MyFitnessPal hack may affect 150 million people. It could’ve been even worse.
Under Armour and MyFitnessPal seem to have some good data practices in place: Payment information was kept separate from general user information, which was stored separately from user-uploaded app data. Under Armour also appears to have reacted swiftly once it learned of the breach and notified users and the public a few days later—a stark comparison to other companies, such as Uber, which hid its 2016 data breach by paying off the hackers. Still, it’s an important reminder that being hacked isn’t a matter of if—it’s when.

What will these companies make of the GDPR, I wonder.

WTF is GDPR?
Last year the company [Facebook] told us it had assembled “the largest cross functional team” in the history of its family of companies to support GDPR compliance — specifying this included “senior executives from all product teams, designers and user experience/testing executives, policy executives, legal executives and executives from each of the Facebook family of companies”.

“Dozens of people at Facebook Ireland are working full time on this effort,” it said, noting too that the data protection team at its European HQ (in Dublin, Ireland) would be growing by 250% in 2017. It also said it was in the process of hiring a “top quality data protection officer” — a position the company appears to still be taking applications for.

And this.

How Europe’s new privacy rule is reshaping the internet
Much of the GDPR builds on rules set by earlier EU privacy measures like the Privacy Shield and Data Protection Directive, but it expands on those measures in two crucial ways. First, the GDPR sets a higher bar for obtaining personal data than we’ve ever seen on the internet before. By default, any time a company collects personal data on an EU citizen, it will need explicit and informed consent from that person. Users also need a way to revoke that consent, and they can request all the data a company has from them as a way to verify that consent. It’s a lot stronger than existing requirements, and it explicitly extends to companies based outside the EU. For an industry that’s used to collecting and sharing data with little to no restriction, that means rewriting the rules of how ads are targeted online.

They know everything about us, and that’s ok?

I really need to stop reading articles about how our personal data is being used and abused by seemingly everyone on the internet. Nothing good can come from going over the same bad news. These from The Guardian are the last ones, I promise.

Why have we given up our privacy to Facebook and other sites so willingly?
If you think you’re a passive user of Facebook, minimising the data you provide to the site or refraining from oversharing details of your life, you have probably underestimated the scope of its reach. Facebook doesn’t just learn from the pictures you post, and the comments you leave: the site learns from which posts you read and which you don’t; it learns from when you stop scrolling down your feed and how long it takes you to restart; it learns from your browsing on other websites that have nothing to do with Facebook itself; and it even learns from the messages you type out then delete before sending (the company published an academic paper on this “self-censorship” back in 2013).

[…]

Lukasz Olejnik, an independent security and privacy researcher, agrees: “Years ago, people and organisations used to shift the blame on the users, even in public. This blaming is unfortunate, because expecting users to be subject-matter experts and versed in the obscure technical aspects is misguided.

“Blaming users is an oversimplification, as most do not understand the true implications when data are shared – they cannot. You can’t expect people to fully appreciate the amount of information extracted from aggregated datasets. That said, you can’t expect users to know what is really happening with their data if it’s not clearly communicated in an informed consent prompt, which should in some cases include also the consequences of hitting ‘I agree’.”

So what kind of data are we talking about? What are we sharing? Everything from where we’ve been, what we’ve ever watched or searched for, to even what we’ve deleted.

Are you ready? This is all the data Facebook and Google have on you
This information has millions of nefarious uses. You say you’re not a terrorist. Then how come you were googling Isis? Work at Google and you’re suspicious of your wife? Perfect, just look up her location and search history for the last 10 years. Manage to gain access to someone’s Google account? Perfect, you have a chronological diary of everything that person has done for the last 10 years.

This is one of the craziest things about the modern age. We would never let the government or a corporation put cameras/microphones in our homes or location trackers on us. But we just went ahead and did it ourselves because – to hell with it! – I want to watch cute dog videos.

And texts and calls too.

Facebook logs SMS texts and calls, users find as they delete accounts
Facebook makes it hard for users to delete their accounts, instead pushing them towards “deactivation”, which leaves all personal data on the company’s servers. When users ask to permanently delete their accounts, the company suggests: “You may want to download a copy of your info from Facebook.” It is this data dump that reveals the extent of Facebook’s data harvesting – surprising even for a company known to gather huge quantities of personal information.

So what can be done?

Beware the smart toaster: 18 tips for surviving the surveillance age
Just over a week ago, the Observer broke a story about how Facebook had failed to protect the personal information of tens of millions of its users. The revelations sparked a #DeleteFacebook movement and some people downloaded their Facebook data before removing themselves from the social network. During this process, many of these users were shocked to see just how much intel about them the internet behemoth had accumulated. If you use Facebook apps on Android, for example – and, even inadvertently, gave it permission – it seems the company has been collecting your call and text data for years.

It’s not me, it’s you! So Facebook protested, in the wake of widespread anger about its data-collection practices. You acquiesced to our opaque privacy policies. You agreed to let us mine and monetise the minutiae of your existence. Why are you so upset?

Most of the tips the article lists fail to really address the issues above, as they are more about how to secure your accounts from hackers, rather than dealing with Facebook and Google intrusions and opaque consent agreements. But a couple are worth highlighting.

12. Sometimes it’s worth just wiping everything and starting over
Your phone, your tweets, your Facebook account: all of these things are temporary. They will pass. Free yourself from an obsession with digital hoarding. If you wipe your phone every year, you learn which apps you need and which are just sitting in the background hoovering up data. If you wipe your Facebook account every year, you learn which friends you actually like and which are just hanging on to your social life like a barnacle.

[…]

18. Finally, remember your privacy is worth protecting
You might not have anything to hide (except your embarrassing Netflix history) but that doesn’t mean you should be blase about your privacy. Increasingly, our inner lives are being reduced to a series of data points; every little thing we do is for sale. As we’re starting to see, this nonstop surveillance changes us. It influences the things we buy and the ideas we buy into. Being more mindful of our online behaviour, then, isn’t just important when it comes to protecting our information, it’s essential to protecting our individuality.

Drawing data

With perhaps the funniest headline I’ve seen in a while, the ever-reliable It’s Nice That website has this interview with the remarkable Mona Chalabi, as part of its International Women’s Day series:

“If it’s about farts, draw a butt for god’s sakes”: Mona Chalabi tells us how to illustrate data
By day, Mona is a data editor at the US version of the Guardian where she uses self-taught illustration methods to bring data to life. Covering everything from body hair removal to the popularity of nose jobs in the US to the number of decapitated animals found in New York parks, Mona’s tongue-in-cheek approach to information communication has won her column inches and an immovable place in our hearts.

There are many more of her illustrations on her website, as well as links to her journalism and videos.

unreported

How to see 4000 years at once

A timeline of global power, from 2000BC to the 1900s.

The entire history of the world—really, all of it—distilled into a single gorgeous chart
The 5-foot-long Histomap was sold for $1 and folded into a green cover, which featured endorsements from historians and reviewers. The chart was advertised as “clear, vivid, and shorn of elaboration,” while at the same time capable of “holding you enthralled” by presenting: “the actual picture of the march of civilization, from the mud huts of the ancients thru the monarchistic glamour of the middle ages to the living panorama of life in present day America.”

It’s from the 1930s, so the terms it’s using are rather dated. And I can’t find Africa anywhere, Eygpt notwithstanding. Has there really been no history there, these last four millennia?

I’d love see this expanded another couple of inches, to chart where we are today. That should be simple enough, surely?

All the graphs you can eat

What’s better than data and loads of graphs? Data and loads of graphs about food and drink, of course!

Britain’s diet in data
The British diet has undergone a transformation in the last half-century. Traditional staples such as eggs, potatoes and butter have gradually given way to more exotic or convenient foods such as aubergines, olive oil and stir-fry packs. Explore the changes across four decades and hundreds of food and drink categories in this interactive visualisation, featuring data from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

Whilst I’m not surprised to see the fall of lard and the rise of olive oil over the last 40 years, why is nobody buying marmalade anymore? Goodness me.

Visualising data; the good, the bad and the quirky

The data’s everywhere, but can we make sense of it? Here are some data visualisation approaches and examples – how to do it, and how definitely not to.

This article suggests the young folks are demanding better presentations of statistical data because of Google or Wikipedia or something. Sounds fishy. Surely us old folks appreciate good design too?

Data visualization drives the era of information activism
Having grown up with the web, millennials are used to having access to all the information they want with just a simple finger tap on a screen. As millennials enter the workforce, they are bringing these expectations into the office, behaving less as data consumers and much more as information activists.

But how far should we go in leading the horses to the water?

Narration and exploration in visualization
What should we emphasize when designing a visualization? Should we explain the data, perhaps through a narration, or should we let readers explore the data at will?

Here’s an example of how an interactive presentation not only helps with a story but can spur you into looking for your own.

What happens when a newspaper editor and a data-viz whiz team up to tell stories
With two wins behind them, Rob and Daniel are already discussing future collaborations—perhaps something with sports or crime data. The idea is to tell compelling data stories that have a longer shelf life. (“If you put time into creating something like this, you want people to see it over a certain scale of time,” says Daniel.)

I do like these images, though. Not sure how replicable this approach is, but it works well here.

These playful, funny 3D printed infographics can liven up any data
Instead of flicking hastily to the next page, your gaze can’t help but linger on the adventures of the miniature figures scaling, swinging from or exploring the plastic pieces.

But here are the real gems. Bar pies? Caramel latte football fields?

BestWorstViz contest result
As with last month’s graphiti contest, picking a winner was ever so hard with lots of wonderfully bad work heading my way. The submissions generally fell into two different camps: (1) the most blatant, inelegant in-your-face explosions of design awfulness, and (2) the more subtly deceptive “wolf in sheep’s clothing” designs. My judgments were based on the degree of violation against each of my three key principles: Trustworthy, accessible and elegant.

But who could possibly hate Excel?

This tool makes it stupid simple to turn data into charts
Here’s something handy for people who hate Excel. Venngage, the company that lets you make infographics with the click of (a few) buttons, recently launched a new product called Beam. Beam does for charts what Venngage does for infographics as a whole. Which is to say, it makes the process of transforming data into useful visuals very, very easy.

Better data? We’re all in it together

As someone relatively new to this sector and keen to check I’m going about things the most effective way, I was greatly interested in this new report from the Independent Teacher Workload Review Group, as it claims to “have developed recommendations to eliminate unnecessary workload in the recording, inputting, monitoring, and analysing of data”.

Data Management Review Group report: Eliminating unnecessary workload associated with data management
This report from the Data Management Review Group sets out principles and recommendations to reduce the workload burden on teachers. It calls on all parties in the education system to reduce the unnecessary burdens of data management by ensuring that every data collection has a clear purpose, and that the process is as efficient as possible.

Whilst the report does suggest some sound principles for effective data management — be clear on the purpose, identify the most efficient process, ensure the data is valid — I was disappointed there weren’t more recommendations that I could really get my teeth into and run with.

It was certainly interesting to read their suggestions for the DfE, including a call to “bring forward the release of both validated and unvalidated data to as early as possible in the cycle so it is available when decisions are taken to prevent unnecessary duplication by schools” and a recommendation that they should “reduce the number of different log-ins schools need to use simply to access and share information”. (All to be accepted, apparently.)

I felt, though, there was little I could directly take on board, as most of it was either just common sense and already taking place, or outside my sphere of influence.

But perhaps that was their point; for us to make any headway in increasing data management efficiency, we have to accept we’re all in this together, from the DfE and Ofsted, to local authorities and governing boards, not just data managers and teachers.