Saturday, 30 March 2013

Lots of data, nobody listening

A few years ago, the Environment Agency asked me to write about the year 2020, which I did - and with my tongue slightly in my cheek.  This is the future as I painted it, and the Daily Mail even drew a picture of it (but I can't find the link).

I had been fascinated, and slightly horrified, by the development of Matsushita's digital toilet and could just imagine what it would mean in practice, so I began the article like this:

It is 30 October 2020. The alarm clock bleeps at 7am in the Dumill household, as the light seeps into the sky above the new village of Hamstreet in Kent. The cock crows a few streets away in one of the small-holdings of one of the part-time farmers.  He washes his face and the water whirls down the plug-hole. In the distance, he can hear the hum of the household water purification plant starting its work for the day.  He flushes the toilet, which automatically analyses his sample. Richard's cholesterol level is slightly high, after a heavy dinner of chips and farmed cod, and the toilet sends the information digitally to his doctor's surgery computer, which ignores it completely...

Dumill and Hamstreet, incidentally, were an echo of the characters and places invented by the geographer Peter Hall in his planning classic London 2000.

I thought of all this when I heard a discussion on Friday about the Leeds General Infirmary's heart unit, when one of the interviewees came up with this extremely important statement:

"Although data was being collected, nobody was looking at it..."

And there is the Achilles Heel of the digital measurement revolution.  Yes, there is measurement.  Yes, there is data.  But there isn't anyone looking at the data and - if there is - there isn't anyone available to do anything about the problems that emerged.

Yes, we can track lonely old people around their flats, and check their blood pressure remotely.  What we don't seem to be able to do is to work out how we can get people round to make sure they are OK - or, heavens, even maybe talk to them.

So we are deluged by more and more data, but less and less information.  Still less, as T. S. Eliot put it, knowledge or wisdom.

This is a subject - too much measurement - that I began writing about in The Tyranny of Numbers, and there is a lot more to say about it.  

And the centre of this whole problem is the Care Quality Commission, awash with data - much of it still coming over the fax machine, which is some explanation of their dysfunctionality - yet so few actual insights, because they require human intervention, imagination, insight.  Because our resources going into social innovation are so small compared to what goes into technological innovation.

You can't measure your way to that.

The idea that government or public services can somehow just run themselves just on data, without human intervention, is a terrifying utilitarian fantasy which infected the Blair government and explains the breadth of their failure.

1 comment:

Richard Gadsden said...

There is an entire discipline within computer science called "Big Data" devoted to analysing the huge volumes of data that modern systems collect.

One key lesson is that this is hard - it needs huge amounts of technology, computing power, and high levels of skill. And you'll still miss many things.