Let’s Be Real

Our daily observations are often riddled with emotion. Even the most scientifically-rooted of us are subject to bias. So it’s important to be aware of the temptation to fit data into existing beliefs that don’t necessarily reflect reality.

I’ve recently begun diving into data from our agency’s website and social media traffic. This exercise has produced unexpected findings.  For instance, the most popular pages on our website are, anti-climactically, the Jobs and About pages. The many other sections filled with rich information about our programs, services, and developments – which we’ve spent hours developing – have minimal views in comparison. Does this mean we should produce less compelling material on these pages? No. But it does indicate that we might serve a greater number of people by investing just a little more time in pages we might normally skimp over.

Another example. Back in September, I compiled research findings for a blog post about Lower Manhattan’s growth. It took about a month to prepare, yet didn’t come close to cracking the top 10 on our blog. Instead our most-viewed post was about ferry service changes.

After diving deeper, I saw that people had searched and accessed ferry service-related information more than double that of any other blog post topic. While I personally don’t find ferry service a fascinating subject, this outlier forced me to reevaluate how we’re deciding what to write about each week. Lower Manhattan, while an interesting topic, doesn’t serve a need. Ferry service, meanwhile, is a crucial service people are depending on to get between boroughs.

Looking at anomalies and asking certain questions informs better decision-making. What is driving traffic? Is there a larger site linking to us? What do people really want to know? As a reporter, I’m accustomed to editors assigning stories based on their almighty evaluation of what the audience wants. I’m also used to pitching stories that are interesting to me, myself, and I.  In both scenarios, public information decisions are made from the top-down based on personal whims and a tepid grasp of reality. Even surveys aren’t that effective since personal biases and framing of questions influence how people respond. Data can be a clear, democratic, and objective way to ensure that public needs are being addressed. While not the answer to everything, web behavior shines light on trends. If the public is clicking on or searching for something, data reveals a demonstrated need or interest.

NYC Chief Digital Officer Rachel Haot wrote an informative piece on what she and her team learned during the redesign of the NYC Government site. She says, “Any digital experience can become an emotional debate, especially when you have lots of smart stakeholders…Data can be a great tonic for subjective conversations.” (I also love the reference to Mayor Bloomberg’s data-driven philosophy: “In God We Trust, Everyone Else Bring Data”.)

Traffic metrics and search analytics informed the City’s new design. Alternate side parking, schools and garbage collection status were the top drivers of traffic, so they placed that information front and center. They also embraced data post-launch to measure success and constantly analyze user response.

People can decry the end of privacy, but open data can create a seamless user experience with more intuitive navigation, better content placement, and targeted information. It’s either that, or continued speculation based on personal biases.

I’m all about listening to intuition. It’s part of being human. This conversation isn’t about eliminating that. It’s about doing enough of a gut check through application of data to decide whether or not we should defend our instincts. Because let’s be real, our instincts are sometimes wrong.


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