Datafication (1)

A picture of Matthew Maury shared by Wikipedia.

A few weeks ago, a friend was asked to present about datafication in performance analysis. This set me off thinking about the processes I had heard about and seen.

I started off revisiting Viktor Mayer-Schonberger and Kenneth Cukier’s 2013 book Big data: A revolution that will transform how we live, work, and think (link). In it they discussed at length Matthew Maury‘s career in the U.S. Navy’s Depot of Charts and Instruments. In their words “He saw patterns everywhere”. They added (2013:75) “He had a number of ‘computers’ – the job title of those who calculated data. He aggregated data. He looked for patterns and more efficient routes and sea-lanes.”

I liked their consideration of data in the light of Matthew’s journey all those years ago. They noted:

  • He was among the first to realise that “there is a special value in a huge corpus of data that is lacking in smaller amounts – a core tenet of big data”.
  • Astounding that it was done with pencil and paper and highlights “the degree to which the use of data predates digitization”.
  • Data refers to “a description of something that allows it to be recorded, analyzed, and reorganized”.
  • To datafy a phenomenon is “to put it in a quantified format so that it can be tabulated and analyzed”.
  • We built the building blocks for datafication many centuries before the dawn of the digital age.
A picture of Henry Chadwick shared by Simon Eaves in 2017

I thought this account resonated powerfully with Simon Eaves’ accounts (2015, link; 2017a, link; 2017b, link) of Henry Chadwick (link) and baseball. Both are stories of digital pioneers. Simon notes that perhaps as early as 1858, Henry tried to record and analyse as “a first step towards a sport performance analysis to assess relative merits”.

I do think reading these authors about Matthew and Henry together gives real feel for what was occurring in the nineteenth century in the United States of America … at the dawn of what has been a remarkable process.

I hope to write more about this process and provide more background to datafication as the centuries pass by.

Photo Credits

Matthew Maury (Wikipedia, link)

Henry Chadwick (Simon Eaves, 2017b (link))

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