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The Human Insights Missing from Big Data

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Tricia Wang is a technology ethnographer who teaches global organizations how to identify new customers and markets hidden behind their data. Through her analyses of human behavior and data she helps corporations grow by turning their attention towards the human factor.

In her latest, well documented TED Talk presentation she suggests that companies should focus more on thick data – “precious, unquantifiable insights from actual people” – if they want to make the right business decisions and thrive in this very unstable, unpredictable business world.

She does not dismiss the importance of big data systems, as she herself declares that they give valid predictions, however she believes that all big data systems need a guide, a ‘partner’ that can fill in the gaps left by the system’s inability to see beyond numbers and equations.

She explains that each and every big data system needs people like ethnographers and user researchers who can gather thick data. This specific type of data comes from humans in the form of stories, emotions and interactions that cannot be quantified and it is exactly this data that helps companies identify what is missing in their business models.

Thick data is so important, Wang claims, because as she mentions it:

“grounds our business questions in human questions, and that’s why integrating big and thick data forms a more complete picture.”

While big data can “offer insights at scale and leverage the best of machine intelligence”, thick data is able to “help us rescue the context loss that comes from making big data usable, and leverage the best of human intelligence.”

By merging these two complementary forces together, companies can work both with data they have already collected, as well as with data that hasn’t been collected, making it easier for them to find an answer to the question: “Why is this happening?”.

Tricia Wang encourages companies to embrace thick data, as she strongly believes that by doing so, everyone will be “collectively committed to making better data, better algorithms, better outputs and better decisions.”


Tricia Wang is a technology ethnographer and co-founder of Constellate Data, who has amplified IDEO’s design thinking practice, researched the social evolution of the Chinese Internet, and wrote about the “elastic self,” a new form of interaction in the virtual world.

Video source: Tricia Wang (2016), The Human Insights Missing from Big Data, TEDTalks

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