Data Literacy - why it matters - Exasol

From fake news to sustainability – why you should care about data literacy

Sally Eaves

CTO, founder and strategic advisor

Eminent 20th Century mathematician Abraham Wald once said, “the most important data is the data you don’t have”. Today, however, in our data-driven world, it is data literacy – the capacity to read, work with, analyzse and argue with data – that is fast becoming the new differentiator in data value.  

Data literacy affords new ideas, possibilities, ambitions and data driven actions. And events of the last 18 months, with the pandemic and its multifarious impacts across work, education and daily life, have heightened the spotlight on its critical importance, alongside changed expectations. Our lives have become dominated by data. In the UK, the government’s oft-repeated mantra of 2020 was to be: “driven by the data”. While in the US, it was about “flattening the curve” of the infection rate graph.

All this has made data discussions part of the everyday for individuals, families and organizations, raising levels of consciousness and the capacity to ask the questions that matter most. 

This is helping to move beyond a focus on the ubiquity of data to making analytics more democratized, and also bring to bear the importance of communication and data storytelling. That’s important, because all the data in the world won’t help if you don’t have the compelling narrative to deliver it – or not enough trust in how people’s data is being used and how your analytical findings are being presented and applied. 

Consequently, for individuals to organizations alike, developing data literacy is fast becoming a core competency to successfully navigate the world we live in. A world which can only be expected to become further driven by data with increasing intersections of emergent technologies.

Data literacy – what’s changed for business?

For individuals, data literacy can be the democratizer of opportunity, opening the door to new career opportunities and rapidly evolving job roles – especially with the increase in people looking to reskill and upskill, accelerated by the pace of digital transformation driven by the pandemic. From a business and organizational lens, data literacy is a critical component in optimizing the potential of data to enable new insights, fresh innovation and greater value creation. It can help companies to move beyond resiliency, which is often reactive in nature, to a more proactive agility to change.

This is especially the case when we consider recent research by Forrester Consulting which highlights the many data paradoxes that have emerged in the last year, notably:

1. Businesses believe they are data-driven but they don’t prioritize the use of data across the organization.

  • 64% of businesses see themselves as a data-driven organization, yet only…
  • 23% are treating data as capital and prioritizing its use across the business

2. Businesses need more data, but they have more data than they can handle right now. 

  • 71% are gathering data faster than they can use it
  • 63% have too much data to meet security and compliance requirements

3. Many businesses believe in ‘As a Service’ benefits, but only a few have made the transition.

  • 20% of companies have transitioned the majority of their applications and infrastructure to an As a Service model
  • 65% believe it would enable firms to be more agile

It’s perhaps no surprise that market forces are rewarding those that have become data-driven, which is more than just a question of technology. It is supported by investing in developing a data literate workforce too. But organizations that fall behind in these areas will start to fall behind in market competitiveness, value and the capacity to recruit and retain top talent. The duality of competences which encapsulate data-driven value and data literacy are therefore fast becoming two of the leading drivers for competitive advantage today. 

Data literacy – what’s changed for society?

From a social impact perspective, we see the increasing importance too. Taking Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) as an example, interest in this area has grown significantly. Heightened by the pandemic – and the resultant ‘global pause’ to reflect, reframe and reimagine the future, ethics and sustainability – ESG considerations are moving from periphery conversations, to become embedded and centre stage. Indeed, the capacity to not only deliver on social outcomes – but demonstrate it – is another fast-evolving differentiator for competitive advantage.

Consumers are beginning to walk away from brands that do not transparently live up to ESG measures, and we are starting to see organizations using their sphere of influence to enact ecosystem change with their partners, too. But social impact measurement, especially comparative measures of ESG performance, can vary significantly, negating the capacity to make informed choices. Today, many are moving beyond being a conscious consumer to becoming critical consumers too. And this necessitates data literacy – the capacity to question, evaluate and interpret, and with an appreciation of contextual awareness. Data literacy is not a mathematics skill – it is an everyday life skill. 

Combating biased data results

For all the insight advances enabled by Artificial Intelligence (AI), algorithmic decision-making can also perpetuate or exacerbate bias. And for all the different news sources available today, we can be confronted, both professionally and personally, by an array of conflicting, even polarizing social messages. Greater data literacy can help to both reduce the risk of biased data being used in the first place, and when incidents of bias it can afford the toolset to expediently identify it and take appropriate action. 

Recent research cites data literacy, curation and cataloguing as key means to combat bias in AI. These are also focus areas that are key in organizations that have strong data cultures which can deliver business and ethical benefits for shared value. With respect to broader societal bias, perhaps ‘social data literacy’ is a better expression. This is about making education, tools and data stories available to help advance standards in behavior for the communication and application of data in a society. Doing so will better enable the ability to identify, question and combat fake news and misinformation. It will also empower decision making that is not based on baked-in biases, perceptions, assumptions or impressions, but on data itself. 

Empowering data for good

Research from Nuffield Group finds differences in digital literacy appears to mirror other indices of inequality. As evidenced by the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on particular groups, unfortunately these gaps just get bigger.

The democratization of data literacy can break down barriers to access, especially around education and employment, and can further help to address the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are essentially “KPIs for the world”. 

Enabled by the rich range of increasingly real-time data available from ubiquitous always-on, always-monitoring sensors, we can utilize the benefits of observability – especially in today’s Internet of Everything and Big Data driven world. Coupled with the discovery power of Data Science and Artificial Intelligence, this can garner SDG insights on a range of areas – from climate and environment, to population and persons, to classes of behavior and associations, to trends and anomalies.

What’s clear, however, is that data alone is insufficient to meet the critical challenges of our time. To empower data as a force for good necessitates investment in data literacy to sustainably improve the capacity for the effective understanding and application of data; from short-term SDG monitoring, to the longer-term developmental goals.

This is probably best supported by citizens learning data literacy skills by working on problems and in sectors that are most relevant for their own country (thereby enhancing national talent pipelines), alongside the power of global collective partnership. In combination, this has the ability to foster the power to transform through content, context, collaboration and consequence.