Data freaks hurt

Time to ease up on demand for info

Data divides.

Example: the continuous 200-year unresolvable debate over student test scores, evaluations of teachers, ratings of schools. The problem? The data itself is arbitrary, arising from questions written by biased humans, and subject to an infinite number of uses and interpretations. Then, when scores produce unacceptable results, guess what: exemptions are offered, as well as new data interpretation systems. All this administered by “data freaks.”

Data freaks are uniquely a burden on social service volunteers working to help individuals in crisis, but consumers also feel the pinch.

Every automobile dealer and manufacturer, many medical providers, telephone order and support clerks, restaurant chains that offer minor incentives either to answer surveys or to obtain loyalty cards that automatically generate data, grocery stores, in fact the majority of businesses, seek data by asking clients and customers for personal information. Example: the receipt at McDonalds offers to enter your name in to a lucrative drawing when you go on line to complete a survey.

Large companies have staffs of “information technology specialists,” or persons designated as vice presidents of information. These individuals use the word “metrics” instead of “information” on the hypothesis that once organized, data has a higher meaning.

Once a package of metrics is selected, the challenge becomes interpretation. What does it mean if 30.1 percent of Caucasians making $100,000 a year buy my product? Of course, no one knows the answer, but data freaks try by establishing dash boards with green, yellow and red components along an axis.

If data reaches the bottom of the red zone, time for reform. The goal is to translate subjective judgments in to pre-determined points of action. If those points are not consistent with conclusions reached intuitively, the dash board is changed to meet the new standards.

Between one and five times per week, I am asked to complete a survey, and one category of survey makes me uncomfortable: requests to determine satisfaction with an individual, such as an automobile dealer service manager or telephone support specialist who tell me right off that their personal compensation is affected by my answers, a terrible burden on the customer.

Information (data or metrics) is flooding government agencies and social service nonprofits that serve people in various ways. I am aware of three in Indianapolis. Two of the three utilize volunteers, lots of volunteers, to directly and personally help individuals in trouble.

During and after providing such help, national and local offices seek data, such as race, highest level of education, original source of the referral, marital status, number of persons in the household, clients’ age and gender, zip code, and even whether a contact comes from a pay phone, none bearing directly on the circumstances of the client in crisis.

These “data points” are only “useful” to bureaucrats and funders. In defense of data gathering, managers say: “funders want the data,” the assumption being that organizations providing self-evident important services will not receive future grants without providing the data. The implied intimidation is itself an unnecessary burden.

Nonprofits that have no history of collecting data find themselves doing so after an “information specialist” joins their boards. Two years ago, one nonprofit small loan provider commenced a new data gathering project without knowing the value of data gathered. It had no idea how to use the information. An especially sensitive “data point” is race, which, for me, is irrelevant to the loan creation and collection process. Blindness to race is close to a civil right.

When a volunteer completes helping a client in trouble, asking for additional personal information borders on embarrassing; the volunteer introduces the question by saying “people above want ‘demographics.’”

The beneficiary of volunteer service feels beholden. The beneficiary does not want to appear ungrateful, despite the invasion of privacy, all for the data freaks above. If a form is not complete, a follow up call may be required, all to fill the pipeline of information having no practical effect or purpose.

Time to ease up.

Indianapolis resident John Guy is author of “Middle Man, A Broker’s Tale.” Send comments toawoods@tribtown.com.