You’ve heard the old phrase “content is king”, but what about context? In today’s world of big data, numbers are used, and often manipulated, to tell a specific story. Contextual intelligence is hard to come by. But data without meaning can tell a misleading story.

A few years ago, Google created algorithms to figure out how many people in the United States had influenza. They looked at people’s location + flu-related search queries to determine that 11% of the United States had the flu that winter. Yikes! An epidemic is upon us! But wait – according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that percentage was really 6%.

So what went wrong? Researchers believe that due to widespread media coverage of the severe flu season, in combination with social media, contributed to the high level of flu-related searches. Google’s algorithms were merely looking at the numbers, not the context of the search results.

A more recent example: Spotify released a study examining how music taste changes as you age. They worked with Spotify user data to pull listening-patterns. According to their study, during our teenage years, we listen to popular, mainstream music. By our mid-twenties, we diverge from the chart-toppers, and start to explore our unique musical preferences. Our music taste matures by 35. At around age 42, per Spotify, “music taste briefly curves back to the popular charts – a musical midlife crisis and attempt to harken back to our youth, perhaps?”

Whoa! Music tastes can now determine midlife crises?! To us, this seems a bit far-fetched, so we did our own analysis. We have a few forty-somethings in the Accorin office so we picked their brains on what music resides on their Pandora, Spotify and other music services. Turns out they all listen to Taylor Swift and Iggy Azalea! Clear sign of a midlife crisis? Actually, they have pre-teens and teens who often use their devices to listen to music! Clearly having Justin Bieber on your playlist while in your forties does not equal midlife crisis. From an e-commerce revenue standpoint, this indicates an opportunity for Spotify to add additional account levels (for a fee) to support listener personalization – ala Netflix.

The Bottom Line
Data without context is meaningless. Numbers, reports and spreadsheets are great – but what story do they tell? People and companies must learn to apply background and outside conditions to the numbers they capture. Data should be an extension of human intelligence, not the primary source of insight. Need help deciphering your site’s data? Let’s talk.