Avoid the Squiggly Line

This is not a book review of Drinking from the Fire Hose: Making Smarter Decisions Without Drowning in Information, which I have just finished and thoroughly enjoyed.  The authors, Christopher J. Frank and Paul Magnone, offer a number of questions that decision-makers can apply – not in any particular order, or even all at once – that can improve use of information.  One of the concepts struck me as particularly important to contemplate, and that is the reliance on the squiggly line.

The underlying premise of the book is that we are not overloaded with data, we just tend to focus on it rather than on the problem we’re trying to solve with it.  The squiggly line refers to graphed data.  If you are looking at a narrow window of time, the line may show significant ups and downs.  When the same data is seen over a longer period of time, those valleys and hills smooth out into something more meaningful.

It makes perfect sense when applied to data.  Our library sees a drop in service delivery and usage every August and December, due to lawyers going on holiday, and weekends, because legal research is a 5-day a week activity.

It also impressed me as a balance to interpretation of social discussions.  Take Twitter as an example, but I think you could make the same case with other asynchronous yet practically instantaneous communication media.  If you post a link on Twitter, the actual impact of that link is quite short-lived, a couple of hours or so.  Heavy users may see trending data on Twitter as a sudden spike or flood because, within their narrow view of the communication, and its compressed time period, it takes on much greater significance than it really has.

E-mail has the same feel to me, which is that people can work themselves into a tizzy, reacting poorly and overly rapidly to situations that may not, in fact, require an immediate response or counter-action. You can really feel this when you are disengaged from e-mail or social media for a number of days.  Things that would have felt very important or significant if you had been there, in the moment, may appear almost small enough to make you scratch your head as to why people got worked up about it in the first place.

The book will have a lasting impact on me as I keep their questions in mind, although I do not feel information overload.  In part, I think that is because I have already adopted some of their wisdom (though not nearly enough) about taking the longer view when necessary and not taking minor zigs and zags as anything more than what they are.  Ups and downs happen, but perspective is necessary to determine if they are part of trends or not.