Unbiased data analysis with the data-to-everything platform: unpacking the Splunk rebrand in an era of ethical data concerns

Splunk software provides powerful data collection, analysis, and reporting functionality. The new slogan, “data is for doing”, alongside taglines like “the data-to-everything platform” and “turn data into answers” want to bring the company to the forefront of data powerhouses, where it rightly belongs (I’m biased, I work for Splunk).

There is nuance in those phrases that can’t be adequately expressed in marketing materials, but that are crucial for doing ethical and unbiased data analysis, helping you find ultimately better answers with your data and do even better things with it.

Start with the question

If you start attempting to analyze data without an understanding of a question you’re trying to answer, you’re going to have a bad time. This is something I really appreciate about moving away from the slogan “listen to your data” (even though I love a good music pun). Listening to your data implies that you should start with the data, when in fact you should start with what you want to know and why you want to know it. You start with a question.

Data analysis starts with a question, and because I’m me, I want to answer a fairly complex question: what kind of music do I like to listen to? This overall question, also called an objective function in data science, can direct my data analysis. But first, I want to evaluate my question. If I’m going to turn my data into doing, I want to consider the ethics and the bias of my question.

Consider what you want to know, and why you want to know it so that you can consider the ethics of the question. 

  • Is this question ethical to ask? 
  • Is it ethical to use data to answer it? 
  • Could you ask a different question that would be more ethical and still help you find useful, actionable answers? 
  • Does my question contain inherent bias? 
  • How might the biases in my question affect the results of my data analysis? 

Questions like “How can we identify fans of this artist so that we can charge them more money for tickets?” or “What’s the highest fee that we can add to tickets where people will still buy the tickets?” could be good for business, or help increase profits, but they’re unethical. You’d be using data to take actions that are unfair, unequal, and unethical. Just because Splunk software can help you bring data to everything doesn’t mean that you should. 

Break down the question into answerable pieces

If my question is something that I’ve considered ethical to use data to help answer, then it’s time to consider how I’ll perform my data analysis. I want to be sure I consider the following about my question, before I try to answer it:

  • Is this question small enough to answer with data?
  • What data do I need to help me answer this question?
  • How much data do I need to help me answer this question?

I can turn data into answers, but I have to be careful about the answers that I look for. If I don’t consider the small questions that make up the big question, I might end up with biased answers. (For more on this, see my .conf17 talk with Celeste Tretto).

So if I consider “What kind of music do I like to listen to?”, I might recognize right away that the question is too broad. There are many things that could change the answer to that question. I’ll want to consider how my subjective preferences (what I like listening to) might change depending on what I’m doing at the time: commuting, working out, writing technical documentation, or hanging out on the couch. I need to break the question down further. 

A list of questions that might help me answer my overall question could be: 

  • What music do I listen to while I’m working? When am I usually working?
  • What music do I listen to while I’m commuting? When am I usually commuting?
  • What music do I listen to when I’m relaxing? When am I usually relaxing?
  • What are some characteristics of the music that I listen to?
  • What music do I listen to more frequently than other music?
  • What music have I purchased or added to a library? 
  • What information about my music taste isn’t captured in data?
  • Do I like all the music that I listen to?

As I’m breaking down the larger question of “What kind of music do I like to listen to?”, the most important question I can ask is “What kind of music do I think I like to listen to?”. This question matters because data analysis isn’t as simple as turning data into answers. That can make for catchy marketing, but the nuance here lies in using the data you have to reduce uncertainty about what you think the answer might be. The book How to Measure Anything by Douglas Hubbard covers this concept of data analysis as uncertainty reduction in great detail, but essentially the crux is that for a sufficiently valuable and complex question, there is no single objective answer (or else we would’ve found it already!). 

So I must consider, right at the start, what I think the answer (or answers) to my overall question might be. Since I want to know what kind of music I like, I therefore want to ask myself what kind of music I think I might like. Because “liking” and “kind of music” are subjective characteristics, there can be no single true answer that is objective truth. Very few, if any, complex questions have objectively true answers, especially those that can be found in data. 

So I can’t turn data into answers for my overall question, “What kind of music do I like?” but I can turn it into answers for more simple questions that are rooted in fact. The questions I listed earlier are much easier to answer with data, with relative certainty, because I broke up the complex, somewhat subjective question into many objective questions. 

Consider the data you have

After you have your questions, look for the answers! Consider the data that you have, and whether or not it is sufficient and appropriate to answer the questions. 

The flexibility of Splunk software means that you don’t have to consider the questions you’ll ask of the data before you ingest it. Structured or unstructured, you can ask questions of your data, but you might have to work harder to fully understand the context of the data to accurately interpret it. 

Before you analyze and interpret the data, you’ll want to gather context about the data, like:

  • Is the dataset complete? If not, what data is missing?
  • Is the data correct? If not, in what ways could it be biased or inaccurate?
  • Is the data similar to other datasets you’re using? If not, how is it different?

This additional metadata (data about your datasets) can provide crucial context necessary to accurately analyze and interpret data in an unbiased way. For example, if I know there is data missing in my analysis, I need to consider how to account for that missing data. I can add additional (relevant and useful) data, or I can acknowledge how the missing data might or might not affect the answers I get.

After gathering context about your datasets, you’ll also want to consider if the data is appropriate to answer the question(s) that you want to answer. 

In my case, I’ll want to assess the following aspects of the datasets: 

  • Is using the audio features API data from Spotify the best way to identify characteristics in music I listen to? 
  • Could another dataset be better? 
  • Should I make my own dataset? 
  • Does the data available to me align with what matters for my data analysis? 

You can see a small way that the journalist Matt Daniels of The Pudding considered the data relevant to answer the question “How popular is male falsetto?” for the Vox YouTube series Earworm starting at 1:45 in this clip. For about 90 seconds, Matt and the host of the show, Estelle Caswell, discuss the process of selecting the right data to answer their question, including discussing the size of the dataset (eventually choosing a smaller, but more relevant, dataset) to answer their question. 

Is more data always better? 

Data is valuable when it’s in context and applied with consideration for the problem that I’m trying to solve. Collecting data about my schedule may seem overly-intrusive or irrelevant, but if it’s applied to a broader question of “what kind of music do I like to listen to?” it can add valuable insights and possibly shift the possible overall answer, because I’ve applied that additional data with consideration for the question that I’m trying to answer.

Splunk published a white paper to accompany the rebranding, and it contains some excellent points. One of them that I want to explore further is the question:

“how complete, how smart, are these decisions if you’re ignoring vast swaths of your data?” 

On the one hand, having more data available can be valuable. I am able to get a more valuable answer to “what kind of music do I like” because I’m able to consider additional, seemingly irrelevant data about how I spend my time while I’m listening to music. However, there are many times when you want to ignore vast swaths of your data. 

The most important aspect to consider when adding data to your analysis is not quantity, but quality. Rather than focusing on how much data you might be ignoring, I’d suggest instead focusing on which data you might be ignoring, for which questions, and affecting which answers. You might have a lot of ignored data, but put your focus on the small amount of data that can make a big difference in the answers you find in the data.

As the academics in “I got more data, my model is more refined, but my estimator is getting worse! Am I just dumb?” make clear with their crucial finding:

“More data lead to better conclusions only when we know how to take advantage of their information. In other words, size does matter, but only if it is used appropriately.”

The most important aspect of adding data to an analysis is exactly as the academics point out: it’s only more helpful if you know what to do with it. If you aren’t sure how to use additional data you have access to, it can distract you from what you’re trying to answer, or even make it harder to find useful answers because of the scale of the data you’re attempting to analyze. 

Douglas Hubbard in the book How to Measure Anything makes the case that doing data analysis is not about gathering the most data possible to produce the best answer possible. Instead, it’s about measuring to reduce uncertainty in the possible answers and measuring only what you need to know to make a better decision (based on the results of your data analysis). As a result, such a focused analysis often doesn’t require large amounts of data — rough calculations and small samples of data are often enough. More data might lead to greater precision in your answer, but it’s a tradeoff between time, effort, cost, and precision. (I also blogged about the high-level concepts in the book).

If I want to answer my question “What kind of music do I like to listen to?” I don’t need the listening data of every user on the Last.fm service, nor do I need metadata for songs I’ve never heard to help me identify song characteristics I might like. Because I want to answer a specific question, it’s important that I identify the specific data that I need to answer it—restricted by affected user, existence in another dataset, time range, type, or whatever else.

If you want more evidence, the notion that more data is always better is also neatly upended by the Nielsen-Norman Group in Why You Only Need to Test with 5 Users and the follow-up How Many Test Users in a Usability Study?.

Keep context alongside the data

Indeed, the white paper talks about bringing people to a world where they can take action without worrying about where their data is, or where it comes from. But it’s important to still consider where the data comes from, even if you aren’t having to worry about it because you use Splunk software. It’s relevant to data analysis to keep context about the data alongside the data.

For example, it’s important for me to keep track of the fact that the song characteristics I might use to identify the type of music I like come from a dataset crafted by Spotify, or that my listening behavior is tracked by the service Last.fm. Last.fm can only track certain types of listening behavior on certain devices, and Spotify has their own biases in creating a set of audio characteristics.

If I lose track of this seemingly-mundane context when analyzing my data, I can potentially incorrectly interpret my data and/or draw inaccurate conclusions about what kind of music I like to listen to, based purely on the limitations of the data available to me. If I don’t know where my data is coming from, or what it represents, then it’s easy to find biased answers to questions, even though I’m using data to answer them.

If you have more data than you need, this also makes keeping context close to your data more difficult. The more data, the more room for error when trying to track contextual meaning. Splunk software includes metadata fields for data that can help you keep some context with the data, such as where it came from, but other types of context you’d need to track yourself.

More data can not only complicate your analysis, but it can also create security and privacy concerns if you keep a lot of data around and for longer than you need it. If I want to know what kind of music I like to listen to, I might be comfortable doing data analysis to answer that question, identifying the characteristics of music that I like, and then removing all of the raw data that led me to that conclusion out of privacy or security concerns. Or I could drop the metadata for all songs that I’ve ever listened to, and keep only the metadata for some songs. I’d want to consider, again, how much data I really need to keep around. 

Turn data into answers—mostly

So I’ve broken down my overall question into smaller, more answerable questions, I’ve considered the data I have, and I’ve kept the context alongside the data I have. Now I can finally turn it into answers, just like I was promised!

It turns out I can take a corpus of my personal listening data and combine it with a dataset of my personal music libraries to weight the songs in the listening dataset. I can also assess the frequency of listens to further weight the songs in my analysis and formulate a ranking of songs in order of how much I like them. I’d probably also want to split that ranking by what I was doing while I was listening to the music, to eliminate outliers from the dataset that might bias the results. All the small questions that feed into the overall question are coming to life.

After I have that ranking, I could use additional metadata from another source, such as the Spotify audio features API, to identify the characteristics of the top-ranked songs, and ostensibly then be able to answer my overall question: what kind of music do I like to listen to?

By following all these steps, I turned my data into answers! And now I can turn my data into doing, by taking action on those characteristics. I can of course seek out new music based on those characteristics, but I can also book the ideal DJs for my birthday party, create or join a community of music lovers with similar taste in music, or even delete any music from my library that doesn’t match those characteristics. Maybe the only action I would take is self-reflection, and see if what the data has “told” me is in line with what I think is true about myself.

It is possible to turn data into answers, and turn data into doing, with caution and attention to all the ways that bias can be introduced into the data analysis process. But there’s still one more way that data analysis could result in biased outcomes: communicating results. 

Carefully communicate data findings

After I find the answers in my data, I need to carefully communicate them to avoid bias. If I want to tell all my friends that I figured out what kind of music I like to listen to, I want to make sure that I’m telling them that carefully so that they can take the appropriate and ethical action in response to what I tell them. 

I’ll want to present the answers in context. I need to describe the findings with the relevant qualifiers: I like music with these specific characteristics, and when I say I like this music I mean this is the kind of music that I listen to while doing things I enjoy, like working out, writing, or sitting on my couch. 

I also need to make clear what kind of action might be appropriate or ethical to take in reaction to this information. Maybe I want to find more music that has these characteristics, or I’d like to expand my taste, or I want to see some live shows and DJ sets that would feature music that has these characteristics. Actions that support those ends would be appropriate, but can also risk being unethical. What if someone learns of these characteristics, and chooses to then charge me more money than other people (whose taste in music is unknown) to see specific DJ sets or concerts featuring music with those characteristics? 

Data, per the white paper, “must be brought not only to every action and decision, but to every department.” Because of that, it’s important to consider how that happens. Share relevant parts of the process that led to the answers you found from the data. Communicate the results in a way that can be easily understood by your audience. This Medium post by Cecelia Shao, a product manager at Comet.ml, covers important points about how to communicate the results of data analysis. 

Use data for good

I wanted to talk through the data analysis process in the context of the rebranded slogans and marketing content so that I could unpack additional nuance that marketing content can’t convey. I know how easy it is to introduce bias into data analysis, and how easily data analysis can be applied to unethical questions, or used to take unethical actions.

As the white paper aptly points out, the value of data is not merely in having it, but in how you use it to create positive outcomes. You need to be sure you’re using data safely and intelligently, because with great access to data comes great responsibility. 

Go forth and use the data-to-everything platform to turn data into doing…the right thing. 

Disclosure: I work for Splunk. Thanks to my colleagues Chris Gales, Erica Chen, and Richard Brewer-Hay for the feedback on drafts of this post. While colleagues reviewed this post and provided feedback, the content is my own and represents my own views rather than those of Splunk the company. 

Hobby Lobby, Facebook, and SPORTS

This week’s super important great big news:

The Supreme Court ruled that Hobby Lobby and other private, closely-held companies can use religious belief as a reason to deny coverage of certain contraceptives for employees.

Here is the decision described in plain english by SCOTUSBlog: “The families that own Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties are deeply religious and do not want to make four of those twenty kinds of birth control – IUDs and the “morning after” pill — available to their female employees because they believe that it would make them complicit in abortion.  Today the Court agreed that they don’t have to.”

Here are some quotes from Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s dissent, which starts on page 60 of the PDF of the Supreme Court decision linked above.

For a personal reaction, The Hairpin has republished a great personal essay/history about the importance of bodily autonomy for women.

The New Yorker calls on history to identify the Hobby Lobby case (and the Harris case, about required union contributions) as the latest representation of a trend the Supreme Court has been following for years:
“in confronting a politically charged issue, the court first decides a case in a “narrow” way, but then uses that decision as a precedent to move in a more dramatic, conservative direction in a subsequent case.”

An additional New Yorker article does a great job of addressing these potential threats in further depth:
“Women’s health is treated as something troublesome—less like other kinds of health care, which a company should be asked to pay for, than as a burden for those who have to contemplate it. That is bad enough. But the Hobby Lobby decision is even worse.”

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