Becoming a Data Detective

Photo by Ali Hajian on Unsplash

In my blog article Data Overload, I examined the rise of a new type of professional, the Data Scientist. In this blog, I explore the role of the Data Detective.

Data science and data analytics are closely associated with the Industry 4.0 initiative. Scientists have been utilising data to solve problems for countless years. We have recently become familiar with data science and KPI dashboards being utilised to tackle the COVID epidemic.

In the middle part of the 19th-century, data science was employed to solve another epidemic, cholera. Cholera was named the Blue Death due to the ghostly shade of blue that its victims bore. It was with great dismay in 1854 that London faced yet another cholera outbreak.

Data Scientist John Snow solved the problem by producing maps of the cholera outbreak, identifying that the water from two water supply companies and a well pump were the source of the outbreak. Snow pressed for a root cause investigation, and the homes of some of the first cases were visited. The property of one early victim was found to be dumping effluent into the water supply lines that fed the water companies identified by Snow’s maps. The well pump had been built close to a cesspit. Snow’s actions demonstrate the power of what modern lean practitioners refer to as going to the Gemba: the crime scene, the spot that possesses the truth.

Data science is an integral part of the Industry 4.0 movement. The origins of data science lie within the extraordinary work of mathematicians such as John Snow and the adoption of innovative data visualisations to enable root cause investigation into public health outbreaks.

The Irish politician Charles Stewart Parnell is buried in Dublin’s sprawling Prospect cemetery near to my home in Glasnevin. The stone that marks Parnell’s final spot also marks one of Dublin’s cholera pits. A mass grave for cholera victims. A grave that was closed for interments after direct observation noted that rainwater from the grave area was flowing directly into the nearby Tolka river.

Data analysis and visualisation are powerful tools that have been developed over many years. A visit to the physical place from where the data was collected allows for root cause analysis and a deeper understanding of the problem. The next time you are solving a problem, get up from your PC and visit the “crime scene” talk with the people who work there, share your data analysis, be mindful and listen to what they are saying, observe the space and give your brain time and room to process all this information. Become a Data Detective. You might be surprised by the outcome.

The water was found to be polluted by the contents of the drains and cesspools to a great extent. That removed by Mr. Grant from the tank behind Number 1 had, when first taken out, an odour distinctly stercoraceous.”

Snow, J., 1855. On the mode of communication of cholera
Parnell and Cholera Grave Glasnevin. Photo Billy Schofield 2021

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