‘Everydata’: Littlest Data Causes Biggest Impact

‘Everydata’: Littlest Data Causes Biggest Impact

There is a renewed focus on risk data aggregation and reporting (RDAR) solutions, as financial ins

A new book by authors John Johnson and Mike Gluck, offers tools for better understanding the "little data" in our lives, and reasons for being leery of big data claims that others make. Johnson spoke with InformationWeek about how data is interrupted and misinterpreted all the time.

In 1996, Gerber aired ads that told parents: "Four out of five pediatricians who recommend baby food recommend Gerber."

Four out of five sounds pretty good. But in fact, only 12% of the pediatricians Gerber had surveyed actually recommended Gerber -- which the average consumer of data (or baby food) likely wouldn't have realized, had the US Federal Trade Commission not called out the company on the claim.

The bigger question in our data-centric world is: How did the ad get to "four out of five?"

In Everydata: The Misinformation Hidden in the Little Data You Consume Every Day, authors John H. Johnson and Mike Gluck explain, "Gerber didn't just cherry-pick the data. It cherry-picked data that had already been cherry-picked."

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Gerber started with 562 pediatricians: 408 responded that they recommended baby food in general, 76 recommended a specific brand, and 67 of those 76 recommended Gerber. (The FTC eventually called them out on this.) According to the book:

If you're out in the cherry orchard with your bucket and ladder, your job is to fill the bucket with cherries that you can sell at the market. So you're going to skip any cherries that look bruised … and you're going to fill your bucket with the best-looking cherries you can pick. Hence, cherry picking -- when you're selecting only the data (cherries) that other people want.

Coauthor Johnson is president and CEO of Edgeworth Economics, a professional economist, and a frequent expert witness. He notes that even for him, studies that are cited in the media can be confusing.

"One thing I've gotten into is eating healthier, and every day there's a study about how you should eat avocados 12 times a day or not at all. Or that coffee both causes and prevents cancer," Johnson told Information Week. "I'm a trained statistician, and I struggle with these report."

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Big data is a common topic, and so is the fact that the amount of data each of us consumes is multiplying exponentially and has been for years, said Johnson.

"But we think 'everydata,' or all the little data each of us encounters throughout the day, is more important to your everyday life. But most people don't understand it or know how to think about it," he said, explaining that he's often called as an expert witness to explain data in courtrooms.

"I want people to be empowered by data, so they can make smarter decisions," said Johnson, "from what type of car to buy to what type of employee do you hire.;

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