Beki Grinter

538, the World Cup, and Facebook: Telling Stories about Data

In computer science, discipline, empirical, research, social media on July 15, 2014 at 6:49 am

As many of you already know, I’ve been following the World Cup. My team, Germany, won. Watching the World Cup has always involved reading news reports and commentary about the matches. This year I decided to include 538 in my reading.

538 is Nate Silver’s website. Nate Silver became famous predicting US elections. He is a master of analyzing big data to make predictions. It works well for elections. But it doesn’t work so well for the World Cup, at least not for me. First, the site predicted Brazil to win for a long time.

But it’s not just that 538 did not accurately predict the winners. I think that 538 misses the point of a World Cup. Crunching data about the teams doesn’t tell the whole story. And the World Cup is stories. Many stories. As a fan you learn the stories of your team and its history. You might start with world history—this is very salient as a Germany fan. England versus Argentina similarly (1984). It also involves stories about the teams previous encounters. Germany versus Argentina has happened before, even in Finals. And those stories are recounted, and reflected on, in the build up to a game. You might tell stories about strategy. Certainly the Germans have been telling those, about a decade long commitment to raising German players. How you structure a league to encourage more domestic players that can also play for the national side. How you balance the demands of a national league and a national team.

In a nutshell, context matters. These stories of world politics, former World Cups, and the arc of time turn statistics about the players into something richer. 538 tells none of those stories. And I suppose that’s exactly what it wants to be, a “science” of the World Cup. But my World Cup isn’t statistics, it’s larger, more discursive and has a multi-decade narrative arc.

Reflecting on this caused me to revisit the Facebook study. Yes, that Facebook study. The study reported data. But it was data about people. However, at the same time I think some of the response could be interpreted as people feeling that there was more to the story than just statistical reporting of the outcomes. Is it a similar type of human-dimension, an infusion of humanity? This is the question I’ve kept wondering since reflecting on the problems of both of these data-driven reports. 538 reduces football to data. In so doing it loses the human dimension. The Facebook study started as data and the public raised human concerns and considerations. If I have a take away it is that fields like social computing, or any data science of humans, need to seriously pay attention to the stories that we tell about people. How we frame or potentially reduce people is something that the public will care about, for it is their humanity, their stories that we seek to tell.

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