Big + Beautiful Data

Here's a data oriented double act, with associate director Claire Moon on author/broadcaster Tim Harford's Google Firestarters presentation, and Eric Shapiro, our creative delivery knowledge leader, reviewing David McCandless' talk at a Guardian Live event. Let's go...

In the first of our two reports, author, broadcaster and FT columnist Tim Harford gave two TED-style talks – one titled ‘Big Mistakes With Big Data’ and the second on ‘How To Tell The Future’. Here’s four relevant insights from his presentations.

  1. Data can’t always speak for itself

At first glance, big data promises to render traditional methods of sampling obsolete (because we now have the data for ‘n=all’), and does away with the need for theories and hypotheses because we can simply ‘listen’ to the data by running algorithms to analyse it.

However, the rise and fall of Google Flu Trends – the poster child for big data – highlights the importance of ‘old-fashioned, boring lessons around how we behave with data’ and the enduring importance of human intelligence at all stages of analysis.

Despite working well at the start, the success rate of the predictions made by Google Flu Trends began to fall spectacularly – and because Google didn’t have a theory for why it worked in the first place, it was impossible to work out why it had gone wrong.

  1. The importance of being human

Despite calling himself a huge fan of big data, Tim advocated human intuition over computer learning and algorithms, and explained why speaking to ‘n=all that matter’ is still a far better approach than attempting to listen to ‘n=all’.

As the volume of ‘found data’ increases, big data is becoming increasingly good at telling us what is happening and identifying correlations, but it can’t tell you why it’s happening and if a correlation actually represents causation – you still need to speak to real humans for that!

  1. Be self-critical

Tim’s final lesson was around prediction, and the importance of being open minded. He spoke at length about a research programme set up by psychologist Philip Tetlock that aggregated a large number (20,000) of quantifiable forecasts made by a broad variety of people. Through this experiment, Tetlock found that the success of predictions lie in correcting biases, working in teams, and in practicing ‘actively open-minded thinking’.

In short, the best way to ensure accuracy when carrying out research and looking to the future is to continually challenge what you find and be prepared to change your mind when new information arises.

  1. Research isn’t always about finding answers

During the Q&A session after Tim’s talks, he was asked about his work for the Scenario Planning division at Shell. Tim’s description of it as ‘science fiction’ got a few laughs, but his point was a serious one – research shouldn’t always be about finding answers. Instead, research should be about stimulating thinking.

(If you want a more detailed account of the event and Tim’s talks, check out Neil Perkin’s great write-up here)

 

In the second of our reports, we heard Mr Information Is Beautiful (more commonly known as David McCandless) discuss his new book Knowledge Is Beautiful, where he spoke not only of the art of data visualisation, but more deeply on the dividing line between ‘data’ and ‘knowledge’.

Psychology tells us seven pieces of knowledge is about the most information a person can hold, so here’s three things to remember from David’s speech to add to the four from Tim’s.

Knowledge is joined up data

Bored with drawing up immaculate and fascinating data representations, McCandless sought to understand and illustrate knowledge in his new book. He came to the realisation that single data sets only tell you so much. If you want to find something new and genuinely interesting, you need to join up different banks of data to paint a clearer representation. For example, if you want to know who’s top dog, you need to look at a huge range of factors, including vet records, dog genealogies and popularity to reach your goal. It’s the same with insights. To find something new, you need to join up different data types and studies, and view them as one.

3/4 of our brain is vision

Astonishingly, three quarters of our neurons are dedicated to the visual system. We’re incredibly sensitive to beautiful things, but we’re equally aware of ugly things. Even more fascinatingly, we have trust in the former, and are suspicious of the latter. It’s why we describe companies with older or more simple websites as ‘dodgy’, and equally why we forgive glamorous celebrities for just about anything (nice corn rows, Justin…). This means no matter how great, relevant, or life changing a piece of knowledge is, we won’t trust it unless it’s packaged in something beautiful that earns our trust. Equally, we need to be conscious of not presenting something incorrect beautifully, encouraging the wrong sort of knowledge – which means data integrity still matters.

Up wide, crash zoom, to the side

Finally, we learned how in order to extract the best information from data, you need to examine it from all angles. That means looking at the whole picture, exploring the tiny details within, and changing the angle of approach. Take the world of cash crops. From afar, wheat is the most planted, sugar cane the most fecund and most popular, and cannabis yields the highest revenue. That last one’s interesting, no? Well, if we zoom in, you can see that cannabis generates £47,660,000 per square kilometer. And if we look at it from another angle, we see in a state where cannabis is now legal, Colorado, that it reels in more tax revenue than Alcohol. The insight? Cannabis is more lucrative than you might have thought.

Rather than point you towards the illegal drug trade, we reckon this is a lesson in analysis: specifically the importance of using frameworks to view data through different lenses and extract the best and most interesting bits.

(You can see more of David’s beautiful works here, and he’d probably want this blog to link to the Amazon page for his new book – we’ll acquiesce and do this here.)

Crowd DNA’s trends knowledge leader, Rebecca Coleman, explores the value created by brands through looking beyond the day to day and connecting with the cultural shifts that consumers really care about…

What’s your brand’s purpose? Great brands have a point of view and mission that stretches beyond the confines of their primary function. Think Coca-Cola and their mission to spread happiness or Dove’s Real Beauty campaign. Google, with its commitment to helping start ups is another great example of a brand with a purpose that stretches further than its primary function or promise. What cultural shifts are happening right now that consumers really care about? What value are you adding to people’s lives?

If a brand has a purpose that stretches beyond its category and functionality, it’s much easier to tap into trends and keep up with consumers as their lifestyles evolve. Take P&G brand Always as an example: it has consistently looked to offer effective feminine hygiene products, but more importantly it has stayed true to its mission of instilling girls with confidence through education at every lifestage.

Knowing its audience and purpose has made it straightforward for Always to align itself with contemporary feminist culture. Although this is a macro trend affecting wide swathes of society, Always has made all its #LikeaGirl communications feel personal by harnessing a universal sentiment. They’ve also accompanied the campaign with meaningful and impactful initiatives that stretch from one-on-one advice for young girls to partnering with UNESCO to promote gender equality across the globe. Showing this depth of commitment enhances feelings of trust and the sense that Always really believes in its long-term mission to boost female confidence.

This fusion of individual and collective value is increasingly pertinent in today’s world of corporate social responsibility over-saturation. CSR on its own has become pretty meaningless to well-informed, media-savvy consumers who – dissatisfied with pure lip service – demand to know how and why a brand is making a difference to their world. In a 2014 survey of 8,000 consumers in 16 markets PR agency Edelman found that consumers see customer relationship management as more important than CSR. Another study from the World Federation Of Advertisers (WFA) uncovered a swing from environmentalism and global issues to supporting communities and ethical business practices as important brand purposes. This indicates a shift from concerns about big, global issues to a focus on tangible everyday topics that pack a more personal punch.

This seems obvious in some ways. It reflects a number of wider consumer trends, such as a growing lack of trust in large corporations and traditional authority figures, as well as an increasing expectation to be part of a brand’s story through conversation, co-creation and collaboration. On top of that you have new definitions of value driven by the sharing economy and the recession. This means that purchases now need to count for more than simply their functional worth. Consumers are looking for brands that look after their needs and desires, as well as those of the world.

Whatever your category, it’s important not to get trapped in a revolving door of convention. For FMCG brands like Always, there’ll always be someone who offers a similar product for a cheaper price. However, by aligning itself with a larger cultural movement it manages to stand-out in a crowded marketplace.

Helping brands to explore and fully realise their cultural relevance is a core theme in what we do. Crowd DNA consultant Alice Ellen explores the roots of such thinking; the work of Pierre Bourdieu in particular.

Academic theories and concepts often fall by the wayside when entering the world of consumer insight. Many books and articles are decades old and densely written in dry academic prose; definitely not something you can have a quick flick through on the commute to work. However, taking a little time to digest these theories can prove extremely beneficial in helping us understand our participants, by building upon and borrowing from relevant information.

Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction is one such text that contains some interesting and important ideas, including a framework that can still be used today, given a little tweaking. Cultural capital, in particular, is a useful concept to decode the world around us.

In a nutshell, Bourdieu identified cultural capital as one form of capital that your status might be derived from, together with economic, human and social capital. Cultural capital can be displayed through embodied expressions like tattoos and piercings, or by depicting our status through the material objects that we own.

Examples might include:

So what does this mean in terms of consumerism and branding? Delving into how people display their cultural capital can be an extremely useful way of pulling out the differences between various social groupings, especially when thinking about demographics and recruitment; it can help us move away from the sometimes reductionist approach of grouping consumers based on income and qualifications alone. Cultural capital is therefore a valuable concept and analytical process – one we can use to capture the nuances between social groupings and in mapping what different groups value.

A good example of how Bourdieu’s theories have been built upon for use in an up-to-date, culturally relevant context is Sarah Thornton’s work on youth cultures in the 1990s. Here she draws on the idea of cultural capital and extends it into the world of subcultures to explain how different social groups express their identity. Thornton describes “subcultural capital” as the way members of a subculture depict their status and differentiate themselves from other social groups, by obtaining cultural knowledge and expressing taste and style through commodities. Therefore, it is important to understand that different tribes in society express their cultural or subcultural capital through shared passions, as a way of measuring their cultural worth in the world.

This is why cultural capital, and more broadly speaking, culture in general is so important for a brand to both understand its target audience and relevance within the world. For, brands, as we know, don’t exist in a vacuum. Brands that understand this, instinctively focus on how to cultivate cultural capital first, playing an intrinsic role in consumers’ lives, and thus not just planning at a market level but really honing in on cultural strategy to gain a competitive edge and boost brand value.

Frank Sinatra Has A Cold

Gay Talese's 1966 Esquire feature, 'Frank Sinatra Has A Cold', is one of the greatest studies of celebrity ever. With insight and innovation in mind, Crowd DNA managing director Andy Crysell explains that it also demonstrates the power of observation over interview...

‘Frank Sinatra Has A Cold’ ranks as a defining piece in so-called new journalism; a painstakingly detailed, powerful and fascinating under-the-skin read. It was, however, a state of affairs forced on Talese through Sinatra – recoiling at soon being 50; experiencing a number of career pressures; indeed suffering from a cold – refusing to talk to him. Celeb gawking aside, it serves equally as a prime example of the benefits of observation over interview (or, in ‘…Has A Cold”s case, in observation alongside only questioning those on the periphery of the scene, rather than the target ‘audience’).

Ethnographic-style reporting, next to visual documentation, brings a richness and a discursiveness to stories that regimented interviews don’t always allow for. Vitally, the broader cultural context becomes clearer and, often, less anticipated and potentially more advantageous ground gets to be covered – something that it can be a struggle to achieve when there’s a lengthy set of highly granular questions to crunch through in a discussion guide.

We’re not prescribing project method designs that are devoid of interviews in all work (sometimes highly granular questions really do need answering through very direct interviewing) – rather to highlight that, when well considered, there can be rigour and process in observation, too. And returning more particularly to the example of ‘Frank Sinatra Has A Cold’, while skilled ethnographers practice observation as a matter of course, exploring the journalist skill-set as well opens the doors to bringing better reporting techniques and a storytelling mentality to ethnography.

It’s this blending of social science and journalism – ethnography with a more potent sense of interpretation – that’s particularly pertinent to how we work at Crowd DNA. Better thinking, being agile, ensuring impact – we like to think that we cover off all three of our guiding principles via this type of primary method.

Gay Talese’s story for Esquire begins as per below. Click the link thereafter to read the full piece

Frank Sinatra, holding a glass of bourbon in one hand and a cigarette in the other, stood in a dark corner of the bar between two attractive but fading blondes who sat waiting for him to say something. But he said nothing; he had been silent during much of the evening, except now in this private club in Beverly Hills he seemed even more distant, staring out through the smoke and semidarkness into a large room beyond the bar where dozens of young couples sat huddled around small tables or twisted in the center of the floor to the clamorous clang of folk-rock music blaring from the stereo. The two blondes knew, as did Sinatra’s four male friends who stood nearby, that it was a bad idea to force conversation upon him when he was in this mood of sullen silence, a mood that had hardly been uncommon during this first week of November, a month before his fiftieth birthday.

Frank Sinatra Has A Cold