The value of qualitative data

Some maybe pointless theoretical drivel…

In today’s economy, economic actors should look to their intellectual properties for hidden or undervalued assets. Owning good data, in particular, ought to be a prime focus. Good data are doubly valuable, because they provide knowledge of other hidden assets. A place to start is ‘social-psychological data’: the sort of data that lets you know what your consumers and audiences are thinking and why.

Nothing I just said is controversial, or unique. The need to own and analyze social-psych data is widely recognized. There is a market of exchange and price-formation for data: they are bought, sold, traded, dumped. In sum, social-psychological data are fairly well established as economic objects.

Despite this, I question how well we know what kind of data are valuable and under what contexts.

For example, most social-psych data being collected are quantitative and aggregative. Aggregative data are meant to study a ‘whole’ — a population. However, most companies’ audiences are parts of wholes, slices of populations: a neighborhood, an identity, a lifestyle, a sub-culture. Most companies need contextualized data of particulars rather than aggregative data of wholes. These companies need to know precise things about shifting and heterogeneous audiences or sets of audiences.

I am not arguing the market over-values aggregative data. Aggregative data are efficient, and often help the user pinpoint an audience or audiences. In sum, aggregative data paint a picture of the broader contextual whole within which particular actors and audiences interact.

But, one could argue (and I do) that the market severely under-values qualitative data. That what most economic actors need to know is the meaning of the object: the object’s power as a symbol, an image, a code, a cue.

For instance, take data on the dollar. There’s all this debate about the instability of the dollar going forward: will it fall, will we have massive inflation, should everyone invest in gold, etc. The doomsayers point to the amount of money being printed, the amount of the deficit, and the amount of debt. The doomsayers point to these amounts, say they are very large, and argue the dollar will burst, and we’ll have our Greece-moment, currently trudging through a complex default, but a sovereign default nonetheless.

The doomsayers may be right, who knows. But it won’t be amounts that determine the future of the dollar. Social-psychological interpretations of the dollar’s quality by its key audiences will determine its future. The images in the minds of the dollar’s audiences will tell us whether the dollar is sound. The key data are the interpretation of the amounts, more than the amounts themselves. Not the quantities, per se, but the qualities of the quantities.

For one, quantities in themselves are not necessarily negative. It is possible that increasing the supply of money to such a degree leaves an image in the minds of the audiences that they want more dollars, not fewer. Likewise, it is possible the ability to print money and get away with it lends the dollar an image of greater credibility, not lesser. Or, to be sure, it is possible the more money that gets printed, the more the dollar’s audiences will grow nervous and bail. I’m not saying anything is necessarily impossible. What I am saying is (1) the outcome will be determined by the interpretive environment of the audience, and (2) anticipation of the future calls for data at the symbolic, qualitative level of audience interpretation.

Anyway, I’m in the middle of researching a project on the price-formation and accounting of qualitative data, and another related project on how economic actors use data and research in their professional lives, so these will be topics I’ll return to at length.

This entry was posted in contextualized vs aggregative data, debt, intellectual property, main themes of blog, Symbolic data, symbolic vs hard data, the price mechanism. Bookmark the permalink.

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