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Is our drinking data-driven?

Caroline Carruthers, CEO of Carruthers and Jackson, cogitates on the balance between gut and data in making personal risk decisions, ahead of a CDO summer school

Pubs are back! And while lots of people flocked to their local on 4 July to have their first pint in months, there was also plenty of criticism. Many asked if we were actually in the clear yet, and if heading down the local meant you could be putting more people at risk.

Whether you enjoyed a pint out or chose to stay at home, your decision was more than likely based on your personal gut feeling than an objective view of the data we all have access to (and that is if you trust or understand the data). So, how should we properly assess this data before making decisions, and why can two people looking at the same information often come to radically different conclusions?

The relaxation of the rules around pubs in the UK was the most visible example of how divided we can be by our perception of data. For context, there are an average of 513 daily cases of coronavirus in the UK based on a seven-day rolling average. Some see this number as still far too high, while others point to the fact that it is the lowest number of daily cases since the middle of March (and crucially, pre-lockdown).

That’s two different interpretations of the same data. So which interpretation is correct? Well, they both are, because they are based on a personal interpretation of risk and current circumstances.

The difference in perspective raises an interesting question: is it possible to approach decisions, about our daily freedoms or otherwise, in a totally objective and data-driven way? As individuals, we often fall prey to confirmation bias, where, instead of using data to make an objective decision, we seek to use it as evidence to support our own personal opinions.

Recent polling shows that 48% of the population believes that lockdown is being eased too quickly, compared with 37% who believe it is being relaxed at the right pace. If you include the 7% who believe the changes aren’t coming quickly enough (and exclude “don’t knows”), you get the dreaded 52-48 split of referendum fame between those who wish to keep stricter lockdown measures and those who want them to be relaxed. Ironically, I’m now using this data to fit my own narrative, but I think it’s fair to say the issue has divided the country pretty much half and half.

To me, this highlights that, in a variety of different circumstances, people interpret and react differently when presented with identical sets of data. Without wanting to make gross over-generalisations, a young couple living apart who haven’t seen each other in months might be much more open to easing of restrictions than someone shielding with a vulnerable, elderly relative. Both will interpret the data differently as both have different factors driving their decision-making.

Understanding how data impacts real-world decisions on a daily basis, and striving to investigate the role it can play in helping us make better decisions, is part and parcel of how I perceive my role as a champion of data literacy. Confirmation bias, and the question of whether we can ever use data objectively, is just one of the questions we will be tackling alongside global data leaders at this year’s free-to-attend, virtual Chief Data Officer’s Summer School 2020.

Now in its third year, we’re once again welcoming data leaders from all around the world to learn, collaborate and grow as part of a community of like-minded professionals. Our attendees might be different every year as the global community of data leaders continues to grow, but our dedication to asking questions, interrogating the data and starting conversations has never changed. We hope to see you there – registration is open until 17 July.

Post-class pints optional!


Caroline Carruthers is CEO of Carruthers and Jackson.

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