By Brian Hills

THE importance of data and society’s reliance on innovative technology has never been more prevalent than it is today but, now more than ever, we must also consider the importance of judgment in decision making.

Throughout 2020, data was key in helping governments, scientists, health experts and businesses alike understand and monitor the global spread of coronavirus as well as helping track and trace outbreaks in localised areas. It was pivotal in pinpointing waves of the virus as we navigated tiered restrictions and subsequent lockdowns and will continue to be important in helping to rebuild the global economy in a post Covid-19 landscape.

However, data on its own is not the answer. Judgment plays an important role – considering not just signals from data but lived experience and values too.

When tiered restrictions were first announced, certain areas, such as Lothian, were placed under more restrictive tiers than data at the time suggested, due to a judgment call combining data and public health expertise was made, presumably to prevent a further rise in Covid-19 cases.

This translates into business, too. Employers must look beyond what data is telling them when it comes to decision making – whether these decisions are linked to the pandemic or removed entirely. Marissa Mayer, former CEO of Yahoo! and early employee of Google, once summarised this as "informed intuition, being data-driven plus gut feel".

And so, for businesses and other organisations to be successful with data driven investment, they must develop the ability to make judgments, combining experience and their organisation’s values with insight from data.

Simply relying on data alone may cause conflict with corporate policy and values. Data may inform business of the cheapest suppliers, but values will encourage leaders to opt for perhaps the more expensive, but more sustainable option instead – an important distinction as we journey towards COP26 and net zero. There are new trade-offs to consider when we operate ethically.

Increasingly, we are seeing businesses tested by the public. "When did you last put ethics over business interests?", was the key question at last year’s AI Summit in the Silicon Valley. We have witnessed an incredible backlash against global tech companies like Facebook, for their involvement in political advertising during the previous US election. US firm Palantir, which has supplied controversial data-sifting software to governmental agencies including the US for surveillance purposes, has drawn criticism from Amnesty International, sparking protests as experts raised concerns over privacy rights. The repercussions to a brand that gets it wrong can be huge.

Whilst it is undeniable that data and innovative technologies can positively benefit our recovery from the pandemic – both on a societal and economic level – it is critical that both public and private sector leaders fully understand the value of judgment alongside data – being led by it, rather than following it blindly.

As we try to navigate the impact of the pandemic, the ability to effectively combine data, experience and values to make judgements will be of increasing importance and value in both public health and business alike.

Brian Hills is deputy CEO, The Data Lab