Kicking around data

It was interesting to see how many articles on the topic of productivity loss appeared in the mainstream press during the recently concluded World Cup soccer tournament. Most of the pieces detailed just how much of a negative impact was being had on the world economy by ravenous football fans taking time off from their jobs to follow the kicks, saves (and dives) of their respective national heroes.

In one such article, Forbes reported that The Center for Economics and Business Research in London put the total monetary loss at US$4.8 billion worldwide. The biggest losses, the group said, were seen in Europe at US$2.8 billion and in South America at US$1.62 billion. Losses in the rest of the world were quite a bit less, ranging from US$18.5 million in Africa to US$120 million in North America.

It was tough to remember any World Cup in the past quarter century receiving this kind of dire economic ink. Surely, the other tournaments held during that time, and every one since the extravaganza began in 1930, have had some sort of drain on productivity. However, the high amount of business-oriented coverage is an indication of how our times have become such a measured era. The amount and quality of today’s data analysis tools have allowed us to measure such trends.

In this example, we are presented with some interesting findings, but ones which also challenge us to keep the value of information in perspective. The inference from the gloom-and-doom productivity-drop articles is that the World Cup has a negative effect on the economy and is, in essence, an irritating pest that gets in the way of widget production and money-making.

What the data-crunching tools can’t take into effect, however, is the unifying effect that something like the World Cup has on the peoples of the world. The tournament was a welcome addition to the usually cloudy front pages and newscasts around the globe. It is the omission of such intangible elements that must make us ask ourselves how much value we should place in such findings.

The scenario is also a reminder that most data can be read in any number of ways, and that numbers can easily be skewed in order to represent only one side of a story. That point is not a revelation, but it is useful to be reminded of it as we evolve more thoroughly into a data-driven planet.

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