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‘In an age of big data, the message of quality over quantity remains incredibly relevant’

Political conversations are increasingly framed not with reference to policy detail, verifiable evidence or a concern for credibility, but instead via an appeal to emotional frames of reference which aren’t necessarily based in hard fact. Truth, it seems, can officially be given a back seat.

But just as the fake news phenomenon threatens to undermine trust in mass news media, the implications for how we view and deploy factual evidence extend far further. Faced with this and a tide of data that threatens to overwhelm them, people everywhere, from business leaders to the man and woman in the street, are becoming more sceptical of the information presented to them.

So what does this mean for research and insight? We are a sector which deals in evidence: it is our bread and butter, whether to inform commercial decision-making or shape public policy. An attack on objective truth could easily feel very close to home.

But rather than be disheartened in the face of an apparent growing disregard for the facts, it is more important than ever that we take the lead. As a sector we see every day the power and transformative effect of accurately and ethically reporting how people really think, feel and behave, and we are uniquely positioned to make the case for evidence-based decision-making.

First and foremost, we must continue leading the way in handling data ethically. The consequences of data leaks are played out with increasing regularity in the headlines, but in too many cases this is still not enough to persuade business leaders to take action. If organisations do not treat the data they hold properly, ensuring it is held securely and collected and used appropriately, gaining the trust from customers and citizens that their data is being protected then the data revolution will never deliver on its full potential.

Equally important is intelligent integration. If the rise of fake news makes one thing clear, it’s that you cannot trust a single fact, or piece of data, in isolation. Nor can you trust an entire data set when considered out of context. Information is only as good as the questions you ask of it – we must continue to interrogate everything and above all combine different sources.  Only then will the full picture emerge. This was reinforced by a presentation from Celebrity Cruises’ marketing director Toby Shaw at a recent Market Research Society conference: don’t boil the data ocean, he said, instead focus on a few excellent questions for your data to answer.

Effective integration may also require innovation. As a sector we are constantly embracing new technologies to better understand people, from new techniques in ethnography and social listening to virtual reality. As the way people communicate and consume information changes, this sector shows how fast we can adopt and adapt, but we need to increase our agility while also communicating the sector’s versatility.

Education also has an important role to play. We need researchers who can not only understand the numbers, but have the skills to identify, interpret and assimilate the insights, and then communicate the stories these tell.

We are walking ambassadors for the power of evidence when effectively analysed and we need to lead by example. Often innovation is not necessarily about collecting more data, but rather ensuring what you already have is fit for purpose and responding accordingly.

As an industry we need to keep explaining the variety of options to our clients and stakeholders, and giving them the tools to think outside the box. Clients need to keep challenging their research suppliers and partner with them in experimenting and taking risks.

In an age of big data, the message of quality over quantity remains incredibly relevant – upholding it is the only way to make the best case for evidence. In a world where the value of truth is increasingly being questioned, it is our greatest weapon.