We Are Terrible At Data Literacy

As a society our data literacy is poor and we are paying the price


One of the big things that has come out of 2016 is that we don't know who to trust. We are being told that we cannot trust our papers, we cannot trust the people who hold our data, and we can't even trust our governments. The banks who destroyed the economy apparently did so to line their pockets without looking at the consequences of their actions despite several commentators saying it would happen, Donald Trump is leading a campaign that is anti-data, and the UK has apparently voted to leave the EU because people were misinformed and misled about the data behind it.

It seems that we can look everywhere and there are lies and conjecture being spread about the use of data, but the truth is that we have nobody to blame but ourselves.

A recent study 'Numeracy and the Persuasive Effect of Policy Information and Party Cues' by Vittorio Merola of Ohio State University and Matthew Hitt of Louisiana State showed that those with lower numeracy skills were more likely to be misled in a political campaign. According to HBR, the study found that, 'For participants who scored low in numeracy, their support depended more on the political party making the argument than on the strength of the data. When the information came from those participants’ own party, they were more likely to agree with it, no matter whether it was weak or strong.' This leaves a worrying scenario where facts and data takes a back seat in the most important decisions, something we have seen in the Brexit vote and especially with Donald Trump's campaign, which has been shown to either use misinformed or misleading statements around 75% of the time. With poor data literacy education endemic in our education systems, it is no surprise that so many are so easily misled.

The issue is not restricted to the national or international stage - individual companies are also woefully data illiterate, with the skills gap a clear indicator of this. It is not going to have as much of an impact as a misinformed vote or the media creating a polarized society, but is still going to have an impact on the way companies do business.

As we move towards a world run by data it is essential that we increase data literacy to help people stay informed and decisions to be made based on reasoned fact rather than somebody else's interpretation. We have seen that when this is done well it has a huge impact, with companies like Facebook, Google and Amazon all testament to how understanding and acting on data can make billions.

Current leaders recognize this issue and many are calling for a change to the education system to address the shortfall. Paul Clarke, chief technology officer at UK online supermarket Ocado, said in a talk with the Guardian on the subject that, 'Our education system needs a complete reboot.' It is also being looked at by the UK and US governments, with data literacy becoming more common in schools, something that data shows is necessary.

According to a report from McKinsey in 2013, 361,000 high school seniors in the United States took the Advanced Placement calculus exam whilst fewer than 50% of that number took the AP statistics exam. It means that even the most high level students are avoiding the subject. In the report from Michael Chui, a McKinsey Global Institute partner, he claims that, 'It makes sense for us to be thinking about education, starting in early childhood, about concepts such as the difference between correlation and causation, what it means to have a bias as you think about data, conditional probability. These are things we as humans don’t naturally do...these are learned [concepts].'

At the moment we are attempting to solve this problem within businesses through the use of data visualization, which seems to be doing a decent job, but in reality isn't the ideal situation. We have seen with the total failure of managers to predict the 2008 banking crisis that it doesn't always work, and more needs to be done to educate business leaders to scrutinize what is put in front of them, something that requires data literacy.

This may be painting a negative picture of overall data literacy, which is perhaps unfair to many companies and organizations who are changing this status quo. For instance, the UK government has given £1.7m of grants to 32 colleges and universities to help provide a range of courses to help solve the problem and there are popular, free programmes from institutions like the Ohio State University also helping to educate people free of charge. Companies like Coursera, Cloudera, and General Assembly are helping to educate those already in businesses and with the push for it to be taught from a young age, we may see the tide beginning to shift.  

Reserve your place at The Big Data Innovation Summit to take part in the Data Literacy Workshop
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