Design matters more than math

Design compels. Math is proof. Both sides will defend their domains at Strata's next Great Debate.

At Strata Santa Clara later this month, we’re reprising what has become a tradition: Great Debates. These Oxford-style debates pit two teams against one another to argue a hot topic in the fields of big data, ubiquitous computing, and emerging interfaces.

What matters more? Our teams for the Great Debate.Part of the fun is the scoring: attendees vote on whether they agree with the proposal before the debaters; and after both sides have said their piece, the audience votes again. Whoever moves the needle wins.

This year’s proposition — that design matters more than math — is sure to inspire some vigorous discussion. The argument for math is pretty strong. Math is proof. Given enough data — and today, we have plenty — we can know. “The right information in the right place just changes your life,” said Stewart Brand. Properly harnessed, the power of data analysis and modeling can fix cities, predict epidemics, and revitalize education. Abused, it can invade our lives, undermine economies, and steal elections. Surely the algorithms of big data matter!

But your life won’t change by itself. Bruce Mau defines design as “the human capacity to plan and produce desired outcomes.” Math informs; design compels. Without design, math can’t do its thing. Poorly designed experiments collect the wrong data. And if the data can’t be understood and acted upon, it may as well not have been crunched in the first place.

This is the question we’ll be putting to our debaters: Which matters more? A well-designed collection of flawed information — or an opaque, hard-to-parse, but unerringly accurate model? From mobile handsets to social policy, we need both good math and good design. Which is more critical?

Fortunately, we have the perfect teams to help us decide.

  • Arguing for math are Skytree’s Dr. Alexander Gray, who’s been working on big data problems with NASA since 1993; and Dr. Monica Rogati, a senior research scientist at LinkedIn with a background at Carnegie Mellon, IBM, and AT&T
  • Arguing for design are O’Reilly’s Julie Steele — editor of Beautiful Visualization and co-author of Designing Data Visualizations, curator of the Data Visualization Showcase, the design track we host, and chair of StrataRx; and Clearstory Data’s Douglas Van Der Molen, who formerly led user experience for Google Analytics and other Google products.

As with the other Great Debates, this promises to be fast-paced, thought-provoking, and hopefully a little bit punchy.

Strata Conference Santa Clara — Strata Conference Santa Clara, being held Feb. 26-28, 2013 in California, gives you the skills, tools, and technologies you need to make data work today. Learn more
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