At the Journalism Interactive 2014 conference, Derek Willis spoke about interviewing data, his advice for becoming a data-driven journalist. “The bulk of the skills involved in interviewing people and interviewing data are actually pretty similar,” Willis explained. “We want to get to know it a little bit. We want to figure out what’s here. Who are you? What are you about?” Interviewing data for a news story, therefore, has a lot in common with investigating data for a business initiative, which starts with the where, why, when, who, what and how of data usage.
“Think of data as another source,” Willis advised. “But unlike human sources, data can’t tell you that you asked a stupid question.” Unfortunately too many people – and not just journalists – don’t think to ask data any questions. Instead, data is often taken on the assumption of its quality. Before you start letting data drive your decisions, you had better give it a driving test first. “You need to adopt a posture of deep, deep, abiding skepticism,” Willis recommended. “Act on the assumption from the minute you look at data that there’s something wrong.” The great thing about data, according to Willis, is that “it encourages you think of stories as questions, not as statements.”
“Questions are more relevant than answers,” Stuart Firestein explained in Ignorance: How It Drives Science. “One good question can give rise to several layers of answers, inspire decades-long searches for solutions, generate whole new fields of inquiry, and prompt changes in entrenched thinking. Answers, on the other hand, often end the process.” Conversations about data science often focus too much on the data and not enough on the science, misunderstanding that what data science produces may not be an answer, but instead a better version of the original question – or a new question altogether. Just like all science, data science is question-driven.
“The right question asked in the right way, rather than the accumulation of more data, allows a field to progress,” Firestein explained. “Scientists don’t just design an experiment based on what they don’t know. The truly successful strategy is one that provides them even a glimpse of what’s on the other side of their ignorance and an opportunity to see if they can’t get the question to be bigger.”
It’s no question that data is getting bigger. Not only is the amount of data increasing, but the number of areas becoming data-driven is also increasing. Data-driven journalism is only one example recently getting, pun intended, more press. But no matter whether you’re interviewing data like a journalist, analyzing data like a scientist, or using data in a business context, always remember being data-driven means being question-driven.