Data Visualization: The Double Edged Data Sword

Can we use data visualization, and perhaps data avatars, to build a better community?  If you've ever been part of making the rules for an organization, you may be familiar with the desire to write a rule for every scenario that may arise, to codify how the organization expects things to happen given a specific context.  For a small group this may work as you can resolve most issues with a simple conversation and only broad rules need be codified (roles, responsibilities, etc.).  However, we're also familiar with the draconian rules that arise as a result of some crazy thing that one person did.  One could argue, "What choice do we have?", because once the size of a group grows and communication becomes a combinatorial challenge (you can't talk to everyone about everything all the time) we need the rule of law.  Laws provide everyone a common reference people can relate to their individual context and use to govern their daily conduct, but so can data.  The difference our modern world, our sensor laden interconnected world, has compared to the opaque world of previous generations is data and information.  We have a much greater potential to be aware of the context beyond our immediate senses, and thereby better understand the consequences of our actions, but we can't reach that potential unless we can visualize that data.

There will always be human issues, people interpret data and information differently, which is why we must "trust but verify" and when necessary use data to revisit peoples' reasoning.  Data visualization is what allows us to be aware of "the context beyond our immediate senses", and this premise holds whether you're in the moment or you're looking for a deeper understanding.

When we're in the moment we, presumably, want to make a better decisions and need "decision support".  To make decisions in the moment, the information must be "readily available" or we're forced to make decisions without it.  Consider how new data might change basic decisions throughout your day, in fact businesses are taking advantage of this and coffee shops provide public transit information on tablets behind the counter so people know they have time for that extra latte.

Conversely, if we want to understand how events unfolded we rely on our observations, possibly the observations of those we trust, and fill the space between with our experience and assumptions about the world.  Different people make different observations, and sometimes we can piece together a more precise picture of our shared experience, but the more precise the observations the more unique the situation, and we need laws that provide "a common reference" so we write laws for the most general cases.  The consequence: an officer could write us a ticket for jaywalking even though there are no cars for miles, or we are afraid to help those around us because it may implicate us.  Bottom line,  the more observations we have the less we are forced to assume.

"Decision Support" and "Trust but Verify" are the two sides of the double edged data sword, and it's this give and take that forces gradual adoption by people, organizations, governments, etc.  Almost universally people want transparency into why events unfolded, but do not necessarily want information about them made widely available.  The most notorious of these examples involves Julian Assange of WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden of the recent NSA leaks, in these cases the US Government wants information without having their information disclosed.  Conversely many of us believe governments would run better with more transparency, but there is a proper balance.

On a less controversial and more personal level, I use financial tracking software to help me plan budgets and generally live within my means, I use GPS to help me understand my workout routines, I use event tools to plan my Data Visualization DC events, I generally allow third party applications access to my data in exchange for new and better services.  Each of these services has some sort of data visualization and analytics that come with it, and these visualizations and analytics are essential to my personal decision support.  I enjoy the services, but it is interesting to also suddenly see advertisements about the thing I shard, tweeted, emailed, etc., earlier that day or week.  On the one hand I'm glad advertisements have become more meaningful, but what are the consequences of the double edged data sword?

I would like to be able to revisit my personal information for innocuous reasons, to remember where I've been, what actions I took, who I talked to, who I shared what with, etc.  There are more compelling reasons too, trust but verify reasons, as the data could prove I was at work, was conducting work, met with that client, didn't waste the money, couldn't be liable for an accident, etc.; I'd like to generally have the power to confirm statements and claims I make using my personal data.

Unfortunately I don't own what's recorded about me, my personal data, typically the third party owns that data.  Theoretically I can get that information piecemeal, I can go to the service provided and manually record it, a former justice department lawyer even suggested the wide use of FOIA, but we data scientists and visualizers know that if you can't automate the data collection and visualization then it's really not practical.  In other words, without data visualization we can't hear the proverbial tree in the woods.  So until there is a FOIA app on my smartphone, basically an API for my personal data guaranteed by the government for the people, we can't visualize "the context beyond our immediate senses" for ourselves and others, and the other edge of the data sword will always be difficult to defend against.