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  • Paul Laver

Airbnb Solve a Big Data Puzzle

You Can Go A Long Way With A Little Bit Of Human Truth

What’s more important - to know that there are 6 thousand articles about truly human research, or to have read and been inspired by one of them?

We love when we see businesses think about Human Truths, and this week we’ve seen a beautiful idea by Judd Antin of Airbnb about remembering the human in the midst of all their data.

“Data is powerful, but it has no soul. [We] need to have a global holistic perspective on humans.”

This is a business which, despite its digitisation and vast wealth of behavioural data, thinks about the Human Truths happening in its world. They can visualise the people that make it work and are thinking about how to make their lives better - what a powerful example to set.

Meanwhile, though, the big data train thunders along – and it’s no surprise, given that according to IBM,  90% of the data ever collected has been collected in the past 2 years! But how’s that working out for the humans in research trying to make their businesses serve people better? We’re starting to see murmurs that big data stifles people, ideas, and business - look at this in the FT:

All The Data, But Not A Human Truth In Sight

The idea of data obscuring a human truth is not new.

In the 1960s, Lancashire police trialled a move to patrol cars rather than walking the streets. The data on criminal disturbances showed it was an immediate and unbelievable success – and predictably, other forces were soon to follow suit based on the positive data emerging.

But of course reported crime had dropped - the human walking along the street and chatting to locals and picking up on stories was gone, replaced by a remote technology. The patrol car supplied the local force with some great looking data, but forgot the Human Truth behind good policing and ultimately led to what Barbara Weinberger described as

'the rupture of many of the links connecting the policeman with the local community and to the creation of a more inward-looking police culture’.

Sound like a familiar charge for the businesses around you?

Using Human Truths to See the World

The very nature of travel is Human – most of us see the point of a holiday, even if Michael O’Leary of Ryanair seems to be confused by them:

"The problem I have with holidays is you go and waste two weeks of your life sitting on a bloody beach. I don't understand the point of it."

Recent events suggest he should be paying more attention to the holiday needs of his pilots as well as customers! But in some ways he’s right, they’re irrational, bizarre, and idiosyncratic - why else would you keep returning to that same wet campsite in Dartmoor year after year?

At One Minute to Midnight, the richness of human truths that travel and holidays reveals – and the ways it can illuminate big data - excites us. Some recent public work we’ve done for the £40M Discover England Fund provided my favourite interview moment of the past few years when someone told us how they always start a holiday by catching a commuter train at rush hour from the end of the line into the city they’re staying in…

This was their way of getting under the skin of what it means to be someone else – looking in an unlikely place and experiencing something with his fellow humans, however mundane it may seem. Is this an analogy for what great insight work does in that story? All I can tell you is that it made this guy feel he knew something not many fellow travellers did, and took him to genuine empathy. Buckingham Palace and a chain pub fish & chips this holiday was not.

For me, what this example reveals for insight work goes beyond the philosophical. This kind of Human Truth is not something that you can see in big data – to be truthful, it’s not really something that you’d go looking for in big data! But it is something that’s a part of a holistic view; an open-minded view; and a truly Human view. A perspective that, just as this very Human anecdote did for me, captures the imagination and inspires us to look at things differently.

The Moral Is… Don’t Listen To Me!

So go out there and be inspired to find a Human perspective in the next thing you look at in your research, whether it’s with One Minute to Midnight or someone else. After all, you may have clicked on this article, but as Judd Antin says – let’s be guided by ‘not just what clicks can tell us, but humans’.

Keep it Human

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