Data and Decision Making

E-mail Melanie Martella

Engineers love data. Researchers love data. Entire industries love data. Governments and pollsters and think tanks all love data. Why? Because data is the key to figuring out what's happening and (ideally) what to do differently and better. To me, whether you're talking about big (or not-so-big) data the really important question is whether it's useful to you.

Data can do more than just improve the quality of your industrial process, it can also be used to improve your work environment and make government policies more effective. For instance, take Farhad Manjoo's Slate article, "The Happiness Machine" which discusses how Google uses data to retain its employees, keep them happy, and maintain a healthy bottom line. The current U.K. government has taken some ribbing for its use of its Behavioral Insights Team AKA The Nudge Unit, which uses behavioral economics (and randomized controlled trials) to examine and improve public policy. (I will suggest reading their paper, "Test, Learn, Adapt: Developing Public Policy with Randomised Controlled Trials" (PDF) because it is both informative and beautifully written.) This isn't just about data collection, it's about using the data to inform.

What's one of the most important goals in data acquisition? Making sure that you're getting good data. What's another? That the data you're getting are the right data and that they will actually answer the questions you're trying to answer. For all the excitement about big data, being smart about applying it is key. Al Bredenberg's article in Industry Market Trends, "Manufacturers Are Diving Into Big Data—Should You?" discusses some of the benefits and challenges presented by adopting big data technologies. The tools are powerful, but they have to be coupled with careful judgment of how to use them most effectively.

The need for better data about head impacts and traumatic brain injuries spawned the development of both BAE Systems' Headborne Energy Analysis and Diagnostic System (HEADS), currently used by the U.S. Army to monitor explosive impacts suffered by deployed personnel, and Impakt Protective's Shockbox impact sensors that are being used to explore head impacts in contact sports including women's hockey.

This year's CES introduced us to a raft of neat gizmos that we can use to help us live better and healthier lives, and this is just the first wave of such gadgets; as our smartphones get smarter and the developers learn more, expect more and smarter devices to aid us in our pursuit of health and happiness. Data is a tool; what matters is how you use it.