Seeing Data Differently with Christian Howes

Nick Gold 3 April 2019

A few months ago, I sat down with Christian Howes  as part of my 'In Conversation With' series. You can see the full video here !

My discussion with Christian took many twists and turns. We spoke about data, Brexit, Trump, Nike, The Industrial Revolution... the list goes on!

I thought I should share some snippets with you. Christian opened my eyes to a new way of viewing data and human behaviour. As we spend increasing amounts of time online, our social media habits and viewing preferences can offer insights into political leaning and broader trends. Although this has for some time been a taboo topic because of scandals like Cambridge Analytica, there is still much to be taken from the data harnessed by social media. Christian explained how much of the information is publicly available, and the skill lies in knowing which factors to compare, and having the oversight to know what patterns you might be looking for.

What does Facebook have to do with Brexit? According to Christian: polling! He explained to me that, from looking at Facebook data, we could have predicted the result of the EU Referendum. The traditional polls grossly underestimated the Leave vote, yet data tracking Facebook behaviours signalled that the vote was indeed leaning that way throughout the campaign period. I had no idea about this, but Christian explained that traditional methods of polling just couldn't capture the same insights. I suppose if you imagine what people might share when asked overtly, versus how they act online and channels they might be drawn to when not put on the spot, does have the potential to massively differ. Scary...

In a similar vein, Christian shared a fascinating take with me about the link between Love Island, Brexit, and Trump. I knew Love Island was hugely successful - the office was full of chatter about it - but I had never considered the link between the villa-based reality TV show and the rise of more divisive politics. The certainty, and comfort provided by tuning into the same show every evening provided relief from turmultuous politics. It's somewhat frightening that we need reality TV as an antidote to political uncertainty, and I think although the media are often enthralled by such trends, it feels more worrying to me. I imagine how different it would be if positive, leadership messages were able to rise above the political din in the way only reality TV can at the moment.

As tempting as it is to ask for Christian's view on just about anything, there is one thing he says we can rely on: uncertainty. He compared the pace of change we are currently experiencing to the Industrial Revolution (yes, really!) and acknowledged the communal pressure in society we are feeling. He had some really interesting bits to say on technology and our education structure, that left me wanting to ask more.

The level of change experienced by industrialisation - mass production, railways, trade - is remembered as being incredibly rapid and the catalyst for a huge cultural shift. Yet the moves we are currently making in the world of technology, AI, and data-driven experiments, is of a similar calibre. Although we only report fully on mass-change with retrospect, I think our current shift is difficult to define because we don't necessarily have the language or the vision to determine where we might end up. We fear robots will take our jobs, and the media play to these headlines, but our reality is closer to a underlying and consistent feeling of uncertainty. Saying that, areas with a clearer focus, like EdTech, are thriving. They also offer a reason to feel truly excited about our technological evolution.

Despite Christian's words on uncertainty, he did note a specific brand who are doing things well: Nike! Christian made a great argument about the brand's creativity, and understanding their audience, which seem to be the two key components to success today. Despite all speculations about AI and computer learning, most authorities agree that creativity - the force behind innovation - is the hardest to replicate in computers.

I had a great time soaking up Christian's wealth of knowledge, and I'm sure these snippets give an insight into that for you!

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