Data is expensive

The iHome alarm clock, common in hotels, shows a small PM when the time is after 12 noon.

I arrived at my hotel at 7 pm, carefully setting the alarm for 6 am the next morning.

Of course, I failed to note that the tiny ‘pm’ wasn’t showing when I set the alarm, which means when I was setting the alarm, the clock thought it was currently 7 am, and the next morning, when 6 am rolled around, it thought the local time was 6 pm and didn’t bother to ring.

That’s as complicated to think through as it is to type, which is my point.

Rule 1: always set two alarms.

But the bigger takeaway is that AM/PM on a hotel clock is not only useless, it’s a problem waiting to happen. There are 2,000 clocks in this hotel. Who’s going to check them all?

The clock would do its job far better if there weren’t an AM/PM data bit.

Data isn’t free.

The microwave in my office also reports AM or PM. If you need the clock in the microwave to tell you whether it’s morning or night, you have bigger problems than a microwave can fix for you.

The metaphor is pretty clear: more data isn’t always better. In fact, in many cases, it’s a costly distraction or even a chance to get the important stuff wrong.

Here are the three principles:

First, don’t collect data unless it has a non-zero chance of changing your actions.

Second, before you seek to collect data, consider the costs of processing that data.

Third, acknowledge that data collected isn’t always accurate, and consider the costs of acting on data that’s incorrect.

Strip away all insignificant digits.


[PS An early in the new year reminder that the ShipIt Journal that created continues to help people make a ruckus around the world.]