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All Things D: Big Data’s Usability Problem

April 24, 2013

Bill Wise, CEO, Mediaocean

Sen. Lindsay Graham just told Fox News that the reason the FBI never realized that Boston Marathon bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev went to Russia in 2011 is that “when he got on the Aeroflot plane, they misspelled his name, so it never went into the system that he actually went to Russia.” Meanwhile, the Reinhart-Rogoff paper that has been a catalyst for government austerity policies worldwide since 2010 has, in fact, accidentally left out several countries’ worth of critical data in Excel.
As one blogger sums up scathingly: “One of the core empirical points providing the intellectual foundation for the global move to austerity in the early 2010s was based on someone accidentally not updating a row formula in Excel.”
Taken together, these factors offer a critical lesson here about the power and limits of Big Data today. In both scenarios, data management tools (i.e., the FBI’s systems and Excel) were undone by fairly simple errors: In one situation, a misspelling; in another, a failure to code a spreadsheet properly. And in both scenarios, the results were dire — an awful tragedy, and a potentially misdirected government economic policy in the midst of a recession.

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