Whichever way the wind is blowing

Experience, Opinion

When it comes down to flexibility and adaptability, the British wardrobe is a thing of beauty. Not for us the predictable lightweight sunshine wardrobe of the Californian, confident that every day will be as warm and sunny as the last. Nor the clear cut seasonal wardrobe of the Scandinavian; plenty of warm layers for the cold, dark winter, followed by a shedding of the bulk for bright, summer clothes. The average Brit has to be much better prepared.

By the time you reach work at the end of your commute, it’s not unheard of to have gone through rain, wind, sunshine and even snow – only to be faced with the climate control of your office, rendering your fleece lined boots and woollen tights suffocating overkill. Until you step outside to do it all again in reverse.

You try to pick the clothes to suit the conditions, keeping an eye on the weather report on the TV or your phone. Little pictorial clues to whether it will be sunny or not, what the temperature is likely to be and how fast the wind is. Behind those graphics is a mass of statistical data – historical, predictive, uncertain.

But we can’t afford the time to take in more. If the weather report showed us the hard truth of the data underlying their predictions we’d never leave the house on time. Do we need to know? We probably wouldn’t understand the data anyway, and if the truth of the uncertainties were shared, we’d have even more of a problem deciding whether or not to pack a brolly! We want to be able to quickly engage with something that lets us make a quick decision that we can base our wardrobe choices on. It’s a pain when you go out without a coat and get rained on, but it’s not the end of the world (although it does feel like it sometimes).

But there are times when we do need a deeper understanding than this level of abstraction can give us. In the financial markets, a trader or an analyst’s inaccurate interpretation could end up costing a government or a large corporation a small fortune. And even with our old friend the weather, there are times when the smallest change could risk lives or millions of pounds.

We need the quantitative experts who can operate in the minutiae of the low-level data. The people who rely on established models and their own pattern-sensing abilities. But increasingly we are having to get our own hands dirty with the data, so we need the right tools to make this not just possible, but not painful.

Much like the British wardrobe, there is no one consistent choice. Sometimes a quick decision based on a visualisation is all you can afford, but when you need to dig deeper into the data you need to know that the tools you are using are giving you the full picture.