I recently gave a talk at the Communications Asean Summit in Kuala Lumpur. There I was, a tukang cerita (or storyteller) among techies, start-up founders and data evangelists. The message of the multiple speakers was loud and clear: Goodbye subjectivity, the 21st Century is the age of Big Data (i.e. the ability to process huge data sets – quintillions of bytes of information)
But is it really?
Last year, at the height of US elections, I was in Houston, Texas spending some time with the Vidanas, two Mexican-American brothers living in the suburbs of the oil-rich city. The two gun-loving conservatives were staunch Donald Trump supporters despite their Latino heritage. This was puzzling to me: the Orange One had threatened to build a wall and kick out people like them!
But after spending a few days with them, hanging around local taquerias (taco joints), marvelling at their little gun shop, speaking to their parents (and cousins and grandparents and so on), I got a sense of why they might look up to Trump.
Sitting in their backyard – where a drug dealer had left bullet holes in their fence – I could feel their frustration with the status quo, their desperation for change that no survey asking to rate their disappointment on a scale from 1 to 10 could really capture.
On polling day, The New York Times posted a prediction that there was an 85 per cent chance for a Clinton victory. After weeks of speaking face-to-face with ordinary people from different walks of life all over the United States, I wasn’t so sure.
That night, while sitting in a hotel in semi-rural Michigan (as it happened, the epicentre of the pro-Trump wave), I had a sinking feeling that the “former” reality television star would come out on top.
Much to my dismay, he did. The pundits were devastated and have probably not recovered from the blow.
In the end, a naive reliance on data-alone failed us.
Don’t get me wrong: it’s important. GDP growth, inflation, unemployment rates, gross revenue – all these facts and figures form the backbone of any proper analysis.