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AFP 2017: Data Visualist Jer Thorp Asks FP&A to Practice ‘Data Humanism’

  • By Bill Myers
  • Published: 10/16/2017
Jer_Thorp_articleSan Diego -- Big data has enabled people to learn an awful lot about their fellow humans but it may also be obscuring their own humanity, data visualist Jer Thorp warned a packed room of FP&A practitioners at AFP 2017 Monday.

“What is it like to live in data?” he asked to open his keynote address at AFP’s annual FP&A luncheon here at the San Diego Convention Center. “And I don’t mean that in a future-speculative way I mean in a today-way because all of us in one sense or another living in data.”

For decades, data scientists—including Thorp himself—were convinced that as they built and then scaled mountains of data about their fellow creatures, they were approaching an apex where wisdom awaited. 

“There’s one problem with this approach. We haven’t fundamentally understood that the process of gathering data can be problematic in and of itself,” he said. “We’re carrying devices in our phones right now that are tracking our locations. That location is being sold to advertisers who are interested in targeting us in ways to help improve their top targets. It touches every part of our lives ranging from health to romance and procreation and all kinds of fundamental things about what it is like to be human.

“This stuff is dangerous and I don’t think people understand what’s going on,” he added. 

Thorp, who is an associate professor at New York University and the Innovator-in-Residence at the Library of Congress, likened the experience of living in data to the experience of air travel. At any given time, 1 million humans are in the air; flights take off and land not only by the hour but by the minute, moving people and cargo around the world in hours. From that perspective, it’s “wondrous,” Thorp said. Yet, for the individual traveler, who must surrender his or her body to security agents and be herded from gate to plane to gate again, the experience is “horrific.”

Thorp has coined the phrase “data humanism” to describe his efforts to give ordinary people a sense of control over big data and to bring more people into the conversations about big data and its implications. For FP&A practitioners, who find themselves pulled in multiple directions, “data humanism” might require scaling down one’s focus to discrete data until human beings represented in the data are better understood. 

“Before you start with a data set, spend as much time as you possibly can with a single row of it,” he told AFP after his speech. “Take that single row of data and make sure you understand what is the actual thing that is being talked about. There’s a tendency when you’re working with data to think that those kind of catch-all techniques that you can use that are going to work for one thing are going to work for the next and work for the next and I can just throw it in—I don’t even need to know what the data it is, I just go use it, can just ‘black box’ it, I can look at the pattern.”

“You can be unaware of bias that exists within the data or error within the data,” he added, “which means that despite all your good intentions, you’re doing analysis of something that isn’t real. We don’t spend enough time thinking about going backwards into the data. That’s one of the grandest problems that we have.”
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