This morning, largely thanks to being sober after last night’s concert , I was able to watch Billy Beane graciously speak to our audience. He was full of humor and humility about his intellect and the way he came to respect the use of data. In listening to him speak, I was struck by a large part of the need for data-driven decisions, including the fact that we are so blinded by surface appearances that we often fail to focus on the fruits, that is, the measurable results. This is true whether one is dealing with questions of morality or questions of baseball or business. The eye test is unreliable and subject to massive bias. Billy Beane was able to take advantage of data, including inventive newer statistical approaches, as a way of overcoming limited means. If you’re not rich or strong, you have to be smart.
Later on, data architect Jer Thorpe gave a beautiful presentation with breathtakingly beautiful data. Beyond the data itself, though, was the question of our complicated responses to data. There is a lot of fear about data and its control, but data is only of use if it can be personalized, and it can, to scary degrees sometimes, and to entertaining and useful degrees at other times. It may be creepy when Target exposes someone for being pregnant, or when advertisers can get a close idea from your online activity as to who you are, but, at the same time we are impressed by Amazon’s precise regulations, or an online experience that shapes to our wants and interests. Data is more to be welcomed if it is owned by us, rather than collected by us by others whose motives we do not trust. Data is more to be welcomed if it is relatable and beautiful than if it is seemingly impractical and alien. Yet ultimately, data itself is neither moral nor immoral; what is moral (or not) is the means of collecting data, and the ends and purposes and uses to which that data is put. The essential problems are moral in nature, rather than merely technical.
After lunch I became one of the founding members of the Domo dojo, committed to building a community of data scientists interested in helping each other out. Service, community, and communication are all matters that seem to come naturally to me. It was nice to see the gamification of the website we were working with, and to develop a social identity in service of a worthy cause of helping people live better informed business lives and be able to understand and work with their reality better. I managed to chat with the fellow from Lithium who was in charge of the lab when we were both on our way to the airport in the van, and he was intrigued at how publishers sometimes used Klout, a technology his company owns, as a way of determining who influential people on the internet are, and thus who gets to receive extra privileges, like the ability to review two books at once, such as the last piece of swag I collected from Domopalooza this year .
All of these problems reminded me of something I thought about on the flight home this afternoon. My passions for knowledge and learning, for growth and justice are all interconnected. My interests in communication, my compulsive friendliness to those around me, the way I serve as a node and connector between others, all helps allow me to appreciate the use and importance of data better, as well as the need for one’s use of data to be governed by humane and moral principles of conduct. Where this road will take me is impossible to say, but I feel as if I am going somewhere, and if it is not a path of my own making, it is at least a path that is going somewhere, and that gives meaning and worth to the struggles of my existence regarding trust, love, communication, justice, and so on. Let not these trials be wasted. It is not enough for us to be smart, to be clever, to be cool. We must also be good. If we seek to change the world through our insights, we must know that the world we create will not be a horror, when what is inside our minds is put into practice on the outside. Such a task is worthy of our greatest efforts.