Why can't we talk about data?

This is an attempt to write down a conversation I've had with several people of the past couple of months.

For my next career goal I'd like to get really good at talking about data. I'm not very good at the moment. Maybe this post should be titled 'Why can't *I* talk about data?' but it feels more comfortable to suggest that everybody could be better at least, rather than just me.

If you're really good at talking about data please get in touch and tell me all your secrets.

Have you been trying to talk about data and experienced the blank stares? That moment when your carefully crafted analogy crumbles into dust? That conversation about the difference between data and information where people conclude that data is information and your inner voice says "just give it up sunshine it's no use"? Maybe somebody says "it's too technical for me"? Or "it sounds boring"? Perhaps you had to explain why data wasn't a subset of technology? Or maybe you like lording it over the uninitiated like some dark data mage, using your power to create eldritch management information dashboards that nobody but you understands (you are a bad person)?

My hunch is that talking about data in ways that resonate with the broadest possible audience is going to become increasingly important in society.

I can't understand why it seems to be so difficult.

My job broadly involves Digital, Data, and Technology. Oh, and people. Accepting that people are the most complicated of the four and putting them to one side, I think that data should be the easiest to understand and discuss of the three.

Technology is hard, by which I mean things like understanding what is actually going on inside a computer. That 'what is actually going on' has moved further and further away from the average person during my lifetime. In many ways that's great, with far less need to worry about the nuts and bolts, and more time to focus on doing the unreal dystopian science fiction convenience hellworld thing.

Digital is hard, if by digital for this purpose I mean a design practice that's really rich and involves things like (deep breath) understanding users and working to overcome bias and releasing things that aren't perfect and committing to iterative development and working collaboratively in multidisciplinary teams and trusting people and so on. You don't know what's going to happen.

Data is hard, but maybe it needn't be. Data isn't moving further and further away from the average person - it's right there next to you, all the time. Working with data should be less of a psychological workout than the digital thing too, I think?

For example, which of the following should be easiest to answer without using the internet?
  • How does a solid state drive work?
  • What is the impact on a user of this service not matching their mental model?
  • What might happen if somebody gets my postcode wrong?

I know data can be really messy and complicated and huge. I know that sometimes you need to do actual maths. However, for much of the fundamental infrastructure work that's required in the public sector, there are broad, human conversations to be had to help solve basic problems. The barrier to understanding them is an illusion.

I think talking about data is the answer, and maybe there's an opportunity to develop a better collective vocabulary for working with it as a result.