#citylis Student Perspectives: Natasha Suri on Rehumanising Data

Student Perspectives is our series of guest posts written by current #citylis students.

This post is by current #citylis student Natasha Suri.

In hospitals, inpatients are constantly monitored. This is a necessity. Blood pressure, heart rate, oxygen saturation, kidney function – all of these must be observed, recorded, analysed and preserved in association with an identifier unique to the patient. Healthcare professionals need accurate data in order to provide accurate treatment. There’s no doubt that good quality data can make the difference between life and death.

But if you have ever had a friend or family member in hospital – or been an inpatient yourself – you will also know how discomfiting it is to discover that a human being can be reduced so succinctly to the sum of their data.

Medicine’s bad habit of dehumanising patients has been discussed at length by many more knowledgeable writers than myself, so I will simply say this: although dehumanisation is to some extent unavoidable in healthcare, no person likes to be distilled to a data set. We are, we like to think, more than the sum of our parts.

CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 from the World Bank Photo Collection: https://www.flickr.com/photos/worldbank/


We live in a time where our personal data is valuable not just in a medical context, but in a commercial one. In the medical sector, we demand our personal data is zealously guarded, but in the commercial sector we often share our data freely. We share our personal data on Facebook, Instagram, dating websites, without a qualm. Perhaps we do so because in a social media context, sharing our data makes us feel more human rather than less. Even if our data is nonetheless distilled, repackaged and sold, sharing it on social media still feels like an act of identity building.

Human data can clearly make us feel less or more ourselves. It can shape or break our personhood. But what does our modern fraught relationship with our own quantifiable information mean for information professionals?

It’s time for us to take a lesson from the commercial sector, who have realised that data without context has no value. To the commercial sector no value means no profitable utility. As Milen Mahadevan puts it, “In the Big Data world, context is king.” Context gives data meaning. As information professionals we may or may not be looking at the profitability of human data, depending on where we work and who we work for. But I believe we should universally be bringing our skills and experience to the task of not only collating and preserving data, but to giving it an ethical context.

Why? Because as information professionals, we should recognise that just as economic data has no meaning without the context of the larger economic climate, human data only has context when we recognise that sticky, undefinable concept of personhood. It is our job to recognise that human beings are more than the sum of their parts, and that their data has more value than utility.

In the digital age, we can – and should – rehumanise data.

Natasha Suri is on Twitter @tashsuri.

This post was originally published by #citylis student Natasha Suri on 16 November 2015 on the #citylis DITA 2015 blog.

Student Perspectives is our series of guest posts written by current #citylis students. If you are a current #citylis student or alumni and would like to contribute a post, please contact Dr Ernesto Priego.

For current and future Library and Information Science news, opportunities and events follow the #citylis blog on Twitter @citylis.

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