The sense of data

Cochlear implants are wonderful things. Instead of amplifying noise like a hearing aid, they convert sound waves into signals and transmit them to the brain through the auditory nerve.


Credit:Das Wortgewand


These signals are different to what the brain would receive if the ear was working as intended. Over time though, the brain learns to interpret the artificial signals as sound anyway.

The brain’s ability to comprehend signals and turn them into something useful is astounding. A famous experiment once inverted peoples vision with specially designed glasses and within days, the brain learned to flip the ‘upside-down’ image of the world back to the ‘right way up’.

To someone who has never heard before, a cochlear implant is a new sense, albeit one made out of artificial signals. Noone would question the practical implications of having this sense but when businesses are exposed to data, they often ask for them as a kind of defence mechanism against these foreign signals so alien to their world.

These are the wrong questions to ask (although just one of the reasons for the lacklustre uptake). Questioning the value of an organisation becoming data driven/centric (two phrases I’m not a fan of by the way), is like asking about practical applications for the internet in its early days.

I recently delivered a Storytelling with data course that starts to get data scientists to think about how they take their data out into the business.

The reason for the course existing is that data people often live in a separate world to their colleagues. The data they have so expertly gathered, stored, cleaned, governed and analysed are useless without the insights that lie within being exposed to the wider organisation.

They’re trying to make the signal ‘brain friendly’, bend it into a more welcoming shape. They are trying to become ‘data translators‘.

But what about the organisation’s part in understanding the data? Why does the brain learn to make meaning from initially alien signals so quickly, whilst organisations need those signals to be delivered in a more familiar shape?


I think the clue lies in the organisation’s ability or not to turn off those signals. Every dashboard you can turn off or senior exec not sending out a clear data message is the strangulation of those signals into it.

Like the cochlear implant to the brain, to become useful to an organisation, data need to be first prevalent, and only then will understanding and action follow.