How Do We Make Data Meaningful?

Getting Smart About Data

Tech and data go hand-in-hand. Is this something I really need to be writing about to this audience? We love analytics in this world. I love knowing things like how many people my tweet might reach, how long visitors stay on a piece I’ve written, and of course how many people have viewed my latest Clay & Milk article. (Keep sharing, friends!)

It’s easy for us to think that because we do everything online, we’ve got it all figured out when it comes to making data meaningful, increasing efficiency, and communicating well to the correct audience about the uses of data. I was recently on a call with Chris Draper, Founder and Strategic Product Director of Trokt, a negotiation management platform where he said, “People don’t realize this is a process they can streamline.” This sentiment is powerful — and something members of the tech community should take under careful consideration.

The “Why” for Data

Data analytics have always played an important role in business, as we can only know how successful a venture is if we track the numbers. The government has also played a role in ensuring that (especially for IRS purposes) data is collected on issues deemed important by the public sector. Often, this leads to a “compliance” mentality, where data is only being collected to meet a requirement. 

A compliance mentality breeds a model of doing something purely because it is required, which then turns into doing the bare minimum.

On the flip side is a “mentality of continuous improvement” which creates an environment where businesses and employees are using data in a way that improves overall business — and often along with it, morale.

Technology increasingly plays a critical role in every sector — from startups to education — the data keeps rolling in at a rate faster than we know what to do with it. So the question then becomes, how do we make it meaningful? Unless context for data is clear, data is a pile of numbers that means virtually nothing. Data must be used to tell a story.

It’s also important to consider data privacy and breach policies. No longer can the business community operate on if a breach happens but instead when a breach happens. Ensuring that a process is in place for a data incident is crucial. Acting fast is important for protecting data and public relations.

How Your Business Communicates About Data Matters

Integration of technology from daily life has passed the point of early adopters. It’s now mainstream to see technology used in tremendous ways, without much hesitation or pushback. One reason for willing acceptance is because consumers understand the reason the data is being collected.

When a company or product collects data and consumers are not sure why they need it, pushback happens. For example, in 2011 an education venture sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation called inBloom, which aimed to improve American schools by providing a centralized platform for data sharing, learning apps, and curricula, was abruptly shut down in 2014 after only three years of life. The goal of inBloom was to build a multi-state consortium that would share practices across state lines. A main contributor to the fall of InBloom came because the public (especially stakeholders like parents, teachers, and students) did not understand why a centralized platform for data sharing was needed in order to improve student achievement.

Instead, this venture incited fear as very few stakeholders were brought into the conversation before the roll out. Without a strategy to explain why data was being used, what it was being used for, and what it actually meant for students, the venture was seen as some sort of attempt for the public sector to use data however they saw fit. This caused an avalanche of legislation with over 400 student data privacy bills introduced across the country looking to address the issues that were brought to the surface through the short life of InBloom.

As business owners think about collecting data (and crafting data privacy policies) from consumers, members, or any other business relationships, it is critical to include as many stakeholders in the conversation as possible, and as early as possible. Only when consumers feel comfortable with why the data is needed will they use the product.

gifs courtesy of The Gif Connoisseur


Susan Gentz is the deputy executive director for the Center for Digital Education and a contributing commentary writer for Clay & Milk.