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The human dimension of data

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By Dr. Arowolo Ayoola

Numbers are the building blocks of our data-driven world. We rely on them to understand trends, measure progress, and inform critical decisions. Yet, these numbers, meticulously organized in charts and graphs, often lack a crucial element – the human story. Data, by its very nature, is objective and emotionless.

It tells a story, but a story devoid of the struggles, aspirations, and complexities that define the human experience. As data analyst Cathy O’Neil argues in her book “Weapons of Math Destruction, How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy” our overreliance on algorithms and quantitative analysis can lead to decisions that exacerbate social inequalities and overlook the human cost. While data provides the foundation for generating insights, it should not be mistaken for insight itself, nor should it replace our humanity. Too often, the focus on data analysis, charts, and visualizations obscures the real-world implications these figures represent. At the end of our analyses, when the presentations conclude and the screens dim, we must remember the human realities these numbers reflect.

A recent report by UNICEF caught my eye. It painted a stark picture: a staggering 26% of Nigerian children are out of school. While this statistic is alarming on its own, a closer look reveals a story far richer and more complex than what the number suggests. This data point isn’t just a measure of educational attendance; it’s a marker of lost potential, a window into the lives of countless children facing a precarious future.
This data is the story of real children whose dreams and aspirations are sidelined, while their peers sit in classrooms. The harsh reality is that for many, the streets become their classroom, a harsh environment where survival takes precedence. This data is the story of children whose path leads them to a cycle of poverty and social exclusion. These children, deprived of educational opportunities, become more susceptible to exploitation and as part of their coping strategies will pick up behaviours that could one day harm the very society that failed to integrate them into its educational system.

Therefore, when we handle data, especially data about human conditions like education, health, or poverty, we must not outsource our humanity to numbers and models. Instead, we should use these tools to enhance our understanding and, consequently, our capacity to effect meaningful, compassionate changes.

Dr. Ayoola can be reached at arowolo.ayoola@dataleadafrica.com

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