Keep Looking Up Insights in Data

In a previous post, I used the history of the Hubble Space Telescope to explain how data cleansing saves lives, based on a true story I read in the book Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier by Neil deGrasse Tyson.  In this post, Hubble and Tyson once again provide the inspiration for an insightful metaphor about data quality.

Hubble is one of dozens of space telescopes of assorted sizes and shapes orbiting the Earth.  “Each one,” Tyson explained, “provides a view of the cosmos that is unobstructed, unblemished, and undiminished by Earth’s turbulent and murky atmosphere.  They are designed to detect bands of light invisible to the human eye, some of which never penetrate Earth’s atmosphere.  Hubble is the first and only space telescope to observe the universe using primarily visible light.  Its stunningly crisp, colorful, and detailed images of the cosmos make Hubble a kind of supreme version of the human eye in space.”

This is how we’d like the quality of data to be when we’re looking for business insights.  High-quality data provides stunningly crisp, colorful, and detailed images of the business cosmos, acting as a kind of supreme version of the human eye in data.

However, despite their less-than-perfect vision, the limitations of Earth-based telescopes still facilitated significant scientific breakthroughs long before Hubble became the first space telescope in 1990.

In 1609, when the Italian physicist and astronomer Galileo Galilei turned a telescope of his own design to the sky, as Tyson explained, he “heralded a new era of technology-aided discovery, whereby the capacities of the human senses could be extended, revealing the natural world in unprecedented, even heretical ways.  The fact that Galileo revealed the Sun to have spots, the planet Jupiter to have satellites [its four moons: Callisto, Ganymede, Europa, Io], and Earth not to be the center of all celestial motion was enough to unsettle centuries of Aristotelian teachings by the Catholic Church and to put Galileo under house arrest.”

And in 1964, another Earth-based telescope, this one operated by the American astronomers Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson at AT&T Bell Labs, was responsible for what is widely considered the most important single discovery in astrophysics, what’s now known as cosmic microwave background radiation, and for which Penzias and Wilson won the 1978 Nobel Prize in Physics.

Recently, I’ve blogged about how there are times when perfect data quality is necessary, when we need the equivalent of a space telescope, and times when okay data quality is good enough, when the equivalent of an Earth-based telescope will do.

What I would like you to take away from this post is that perfect data quality is not a prerequisite for the discovery of new business insights.  Even when data doesn’t provide a perfect view of the business cosmos, even when it’s partially obstructed, blemished, or diminished by the turbulent and murky atmosphere of poor quality, data can still provide business insights.

This doesn’t mean that you should settle for poor data quality, just that you shouldn’t demand perfection before using data.

Tyson ends each episode of his StarTalk Radio program by saying “keep looking up,” so I will end this blog post by saying, even when its quality isn’t perfect, keep looking up insights in data.


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