Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The Era of Brilliant Alchemy: Data Anthropology

"Show me the numbers," it's often said. After all, data IS proof. But data is nothing without context, without a story, the whole story.

As a small child, I was fascinated by historical remnants of societies long gone, Pompeii, Masada, Taino, Aztec... Who were these people? What did they care about? What happened to them? How different were they from you and I? Or were they just like me? 

Anthropology is Dead

It was this intriguing idea of shared commonality/humanity that fascinated me in such a way that for the rest of my schooling, I became of student of the sciences and eventually undertook anthropology as a major course of study. It was there that I found myself being forced to make a choice between the softer qualitative analysis of my studies and the harder quantitative data. I found myself in a quagmire, I could write an ethnography report like nobody's business, I loved being in the lab and visual data, but inputting spreadsheets made me queasy. Today this dichotomy isn't as clear cut.

I've always been interested in technology, art and design but back then I didn't have any real interest in marketing. So it's rather curious for me to see the progression of marketing and business strategy and digital rapidly encroach into a blend of art and science. The era of Big Data demands scientists to organize and identify patterns and other findings quickly and effectively from quantitative data but it also demands an astute anthropological approach to share narratives about the role of the findings in people's lives. 

Back in my school days, I was told over and over again, that anthropology was one of those dead end majors, were you either teach until you are gray-haired or you spend your career begging for funding, because the market for anthropologists outside of academia was minuscule.

Long Live Anthropology

Today we see in-house anthropologists at Google, Microsoft, Intel, Sandia National Labs, as well as at design, software and analytics, and market research firms the world over, not only exploring cultural insights but also aspects like usability through a social science lens. Pretty sweet for such a "withering" science...

What has happened is that the world we live in today calls for brands and business to not only understand their consumers and clients' needs and desires but to also deeply comprehend their place, their context in their world, their zeitgeist, and their particular experience and connect that to their offering. Empathy is key.

Dataclysm & The Era of Brilliant Alchemy 

The other day, I received a review copy of the book Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One's Looking) written by Christian Rudder, cofounder of OkCupid, whom you may remember used to share all those nifty reports based on findings from mining OKCupid member behavior. 

One of the cooler things that struck me about the book's angle is that "Data scientists have become the new demographers" and we are living in a time of a "brilliant alchemy, in which math is made human and numbers become the narrative of our time." True story.

Live long and prosper

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Valerie RussoFormerly a senior copy editor at Thomson Reuters, a research editor at AOL,  and a senior web publicist at Hachette Book GroupValerie M. Russo is editor at large of The Front End of Innovation BlogThe Market Research Event BlogThe World Future Trends Tumblr, the Digital Impact Blog, and also blogs at Literanista.net. She is the innovation lead and senior social media strategist for the Marketing and Business Strategy Division of the Institute for International Research, an Informa LLC., and her poetry was published in Regrets Only on sale at the MOMA Gift Shop. Her background is in Anthropology and English Literature. You can reach her at vrusso@iirusa.com or @Literanista

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