Data Abuse creeping into Asia’s tech ecosystem
February 25, 2013 by Terence LEE
Data is becoming more ubiquitous, and this is affecting how companies big and small conduct sales and direct their marketing efforts. It has even made its way into political punditry, as Nate Silver stunningly demonstrated during the 2012 US Presidential Elections when he correctly predicted the winner in all 50 states.
These data-driven approaches are the results of a new way of thinking called data-ism, which is defined by New York Times columnist David Brooks as a set of assumptions about how ”everything that can be measured should be measured; that data is a transparent and reliable lens that allows us to filter out emotionalism and ideology; that data will help us do remarkable things — like foretell the future.”
But like every new buzzword out there, data-ism can be misused and misinterpreted. Such Data Abuse involves the use of data and bullshit metrics as a marketing tool to mislead the press and the public.
Increasingly, entrepreneurs, investors, the media, and marketers in Asia and around the world are involved in this to give the impression that they’re on the cutting edge.
It’s a trick that has been existing in the marketer’s playbook for ages — in author Naomi Klein’s book No Logo, she writes about how corporations have smartly adopted and commercialized emerging sub-cultures into their marketing efforts, milking the proverbial cow for all its worth.
The same thing that has happened with the environmental movement is now happening with data-ism. And it could get worse: As the costs of collecting, visualizing, and distributing information becomes lower, Data Abuse could increase.
Creating news out of nothing
As an editor, I receive a lot of requests from startups that want to be featured. Yet too often, in an attempt to clock press mileage, these companies peddle what Analytics firm Mixpanel and its investor Andreessen Horowitz call “bullshit metrics”.
They talk about the number of downloads or registered users an app has garnered, but these data doesn’t provide an accurate picture of how engaging it is. Worst of all are companies boasting about having thousands or millions of “users” — when the term could pretty much mean anything.
While I understand that it doesn’t serve a company’s interest to reveal every factoid about its performance — unless you’re a frontrunner like Kakao — I think a better balance can be struck.
Startups aren’t the only ones involved in Data Abuse. Public relations firms and marketers are doing it as well. For a time, I was on the receiving end of some pretty inane infographics and so-called studies purported to reveal some counter-intuitive insight. Many of these studies are sent by some of the largest tech firms in the world.
Yet it’s clear that many of these information are guilty of dubious or unclear methodology that wouldn’t stand up to public scrutiny.
The media: Partners in crime
What’s perhaps most frustrating about the situation is how the media, the supposed gatekeepers and curators of information, are lapping it all up. Newsmakers, after all, respond to demand from reporters for cute infographics that add pageviews but not much value.
General news reporters are the most susceptible — but that’s somewhat understandable because they are non-specialists who report for a mainstream, consumer audience. And given the diversity of subject matter they deal with, expecting them to tell apart downloads from genuine app engagement would be a stretch.
But while specialist tech reporters are supposed to know better, they often fail to live up to the mark.
Consider this article about Viber, which states that the chat app has surpassed “140 million users,” or “400,000 new users” per day.
Clearly written from a press release, the author failed to mention what “users” refer to — is it downloads, registered users, or monthly active users?
As far as I can tell, no attempts were made either to inform the reader if Viber was probed for numbers that tell the true story. If the company declined to reveal exact figures, it should be stated as such.
What Reuters and TheNextWeb got wrong
Both websites carried opposite viewpoints: Reuters argued that the iPhone is losing market share in Asia, while TheNextWeb disputed this. Both cited figures from the same source: gs.statcounter.com.
The problem is that they did not scrutinize StatCounter enough. The website gets its data from the analytics code which its users install on their websites. While it has laudably disclosed its methodology online, it has a fatal flaw: There’s no way of telling how representative the sample is of a population.
While StatCounter says that it has sampled 72 million pageviews from Indonesia, we don’t know how representative it is of the country’s smartphone market.
These pageviews could very well be concentrated on a certain genre of websites in Indonesia and overseas, hence skewing the results towards a particular segment.
Basing market share on pageviews could render the results invalid: Assuming that Internet usage per user is highest on iPhones followed by Android phones and feature phones, StatCounter’s graphs could favor certain brands over others.
Both articles failed to indicate that the data they based their arguments on might be flawed.
I have certainly been guilty of Data Abuse as well. There are times where I’ve published dubious infographics based on questionable data, and I’ve of blindly accepting the results of marketing copy disguised as research reports on occasion. Certainly, the media has a role to play in cleaning up this data scourge. But so too does every stakeholder in the tech ecosystem.
Already, investors like Founder Institute and JFDI.Asia as well as startup services like Startup Genome are starting to use data as a means of predicting entrepreneurial success. And they’re not shy to talk about it.
While attempts to quantify entrepreneurial traits should be encouraged, we don’t know at this point if applying Data-ism into seed stage investments will bear fruit. They will need to grapple with the question of whether a parameter is quantifiable. In theory, it might be possible to eventually measure every entrepreneurial trait. In reality, however, the technology may not have caught up with our ideals. Our reach could be extending beyond our grasp.
Members of the tech ecosystem in Asia, who are finding their markets becoming more competitive, will need to carefully balance conflicting motivations. An investor may want to use data as a means of making better judgments, but it could degenerate into a marketing tool to differentiate from other funds and accelerators.
A startup may want to portray itself as being data-centric just for the purpose of giving it a public perception edge over rivals. The same is happening to the media in its bid to rise above the din.
Data Abuse is showing no sign of abating. It might get worse, as the Internet of Things begins to take hold and sensors become as cheap as dirt.
To deal with this information overload, it would be worth the effort to take a step back and learn to evaluate data instead of merely finding better ways to collect it.
Find out more about SGE’s research arm: SGE Insights, providing customized in-depth research reports to help you navigate the business of technology in Asia.
About The Author
Terence LEE - Editor
Terence writes mainly about technology trends and startups in Asia. He believes in crafting smart content: Not just a regurgitation of text, but well thought-out pieces that serve the reader using a combination of data, design, narratives, analysis, and visual impact. His articles have been published on Venturebeat, Yahoo!, Straits Times, Today, and The Online Citizen. He also co-founded NewNation.sg, a satirical news site covering Singapore affairs. Engage him on LinkedIn and Twitter.Read other posts by Terence LEE