The Human Stories that Lie Within Big Data

storytelling-boardIf I wanted to impress upon you the fact that texting and driving is dangerous, I could tell you this:

In 2011, at least 23% of auto collisions involved cell phones. That’s 1.3 million crashes, in which 3331 people were killed. Texting while driving makes it 23 times more likely that you’ll be in a car accident.

Or, I could tell you this:

In 2009, Ashley Zumbrunnen wanted to send her husband a message telling him “I love you, have a good day.” She was driving to work and as she was texting the message, she veered across the centerline into oncoming traffic. She overcorrected and lost control of her vehicle. The car flipped and Ashley broke her neck. She is now completely paralyzed.

After the accident, Zumbrunnen couldn’t sit up, dress herself or bath. She was completely helpless. Now a divorced single mom, she struggles to look after her young daughter, who recently said to her “I like to go play with your friends, because they have legs and can do things.”

The first example gave you a lot more information. But the second example probably had more impact. That’s because it’s a story.

We humans are built to respond to stories. Our brains can better grasp messages that are in a narrative arc. We do much less well with numbers. Numbers are an abstraction and so our brains struggle with numbers, especially big numbers.

One company, Monitor360, is bringing the power of narratives to the world of big data. I chatted with CEO Doug Randall recently about Monitor360’s use of narratives to make sense of Big Data.

“We all have filters through which we see the world. And those filters are formed by our experiences, by our values, by our viewpoints. Those are really narratives. Those are really stories that we tell ourselves.”

For example, I suspect the things that resonated with you with Ashley’s story were the reason for the text – telling her husband she loved him – the irony that the marriage eventually failed after her accident and the pain she undoubtedly felt when her daughter said she likes playing with other moms who can still walk. All of those things, while they don’t really add anything to our knowledge about the incidence rate of texting and driving accidents, are all things that strike us at a deeply emotional level because we can picture ourselves in Ashley’s situation. We empathize with her. And that’s what a story is, a vehicle to help us understand the experiences of another.

Monitor360 uses narratives to tap into these empathetic hooks that lie in the mountain of information being generating by things like social media. It goes beyond abstract data to try to identify our beliefs and values. And then it uses narratives to help us make sense of our market. Monitor360 does this with a unique combination of humans and machines.

“A computer can collect huge amounts of data and the compute can even sort that data. But “sense making” is still very, very difficult for computers to do. So human beings go through that information, synthesize that information and pull out what the underlying narrative is.”

Monitor360 detects common stories in the noisy buzz of Big Data. In the stories we tell, we indicate what we care about.

“This is what’s so wonderful about Big Data. The Data actually tells us, by volume, what’s interesting. We’re taking what are the most often talked about subjects…the data is actually telling us what those subjects are. We then go in and determine what the underlying belief system in that is.”

Monitor360’s realization that it’s the narratives that we care about is an interesting approach to Big Data. It’s also encouraging to know that they’re not trying to eliminate human judgment from the equation. Empathy is still something we can trump computers at.

At least for now.

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