Lessons 2020 Taught Us About Data and Analytics

Ryan den Rooijen
Ryan den Rooijen

The paradox of the difficult periods of our lives is that while we are keen to bid them farewell and forget them, they are often sources for some of the richest lessons. In that regard, 2020's pandemic was no different. Whether it relates to the depth of personal resilience, the strength of interpersonal relationships, or the importance of green spaces, there are many conclusions to be drawn. Yet because I love writing about COVID-19 and data, let us focus on that domain.

#1 Getting the data basics right can prove challenging. We saw many examples of this when it came to understanding the evolution of the COVID-19 pandemic. While collecting reliable test data was the primary challenge, collation proved an issue too, with the UK missing nearly 16,000 cases because they chose to track cases in an old version of Excel. Agreeing on how to define Covid deaths and establishing baseline mortality was no easy task either.

#2 Data for data's sake is not necessarily a good thing. During the last year we have seen unprecedented amounts of people paying attention to data, following COVID-19 trackers on sites such as Our World in Data. While one might consider this a positive, is this always the case? How many simply felt overwhelmed or depressed by the data they consumed? Did the average person benefit from hourly updates of their Covid trackers? I would challenge that.

This year has felt like a depressing alternate reality. Photo by Marc-Olivier Jodoin.

#3 Building products and deriving insights are different. During the early months of the pandemic, organisations of every size built internal COVID-19 dashboards to facilitate employees' access to pandemic data. Yet in the majority of those cases they did not provide any insights beyond those derived from existing data sources. While it can be tempting to believe developing data products will lead to insights, we must acknowledge this is often not the case.

#4 Having insights does not entail meaningful action. Early on in the pandemic it became clear that wearing masks was a highly effective means of preventing the transmission of coronavirus. Still, few leaders acted on this insight, either citing unwillingness to impose such measures on the populace, or citing the need for more studies. Yet as an article in Nature asked: "How much evidence is enough?" It takes courage to move from insight to action.

#5 Deliberate actions do not always engender positive impact. The most important lesson is also the most painful. Even where data led to clear policies aimed at curtailing the pandemic, we have seen countless examples of people ignoring those measures. Like in many enterprise transformations, the human factor is the most important one. It is not enough to have actionable insight; your audience needs to be bought in for positive results to ensue.

Being allowed outside after lockdown makes you realise how great outside is. Photo by 丁亦然.

All in all, these lessons might make one feel rather despondent. Yet my aim is only to instill a modicum of humility in us analytics practitioners, as so often we are told we hold the key to unlocking exponential value for our organisations. That said, while I hope you found this post insightful, I fully appreciate some might feel shortchanged given there was no Christmas poem this year. Therefore, I hope that the following stanzas might ameliorate this.

'T was the night before '21
and all through the town,
People reflected,
with a sigh and a frown;

For what a horrible time
all had had this year,
No celebrations
Just mis'ry and fear;

Yet there on the horizon
a new hope was found,
as in global labs
vaccinations abound;

Let us not make the mistake
Assuming that we,
Are out of the woods
No struggles to see;

For those working in data
May this be a call,
To not give up yet
'Nd add value for all;

If this year show'd us one thing
It is that insight,
benefits can bring;

There is still plenty of work
Helping brands online,
And delighting their
Customers in time;

Granted that did not quite rhyme
But as you know it,
This data blogger
Is not a poet;

So to wrap this up
Before the clock you hear,
I want to wish you

– Ryan

Data & Analytics

Ryan den Rooijen

Chief Strategy Officer of Appsbroker CTS, the leading Google-dedicated consultancy. Formerly Chief Ecom & Data Officer.