What I Learned About Big Data From Dr. House

Chris Tuleya - correct version260Posts

On the surface, the classic TV show House M.D. and the media business may seem to have nothing in common. After all, House was a medical genius who diagnosed patients when no one else could and… well, media & marketing professionals are not medical doctors. But the truth is, it is a show about analytics and how analyzing data leads to a diagnosis. His approach is something us non-medical doctors can learn a few lessons from when evaluating data to unearth insights.

  1. Explore data to find questions worth asking. When first evaluating a patient, House’s team would start by noting all of the facts they had to get a complete picture of what they are looking at before they started diagnosing. Too often we anchor ourselves to questions and then look for the data that helps us best answer those questions. Instead we should look at the data to help us determine what we should actually be asking. By taking this approach we have a better chance of unearthing a unique insight or trend that otherwise may have been missed.
  2. Data mining is not a linear task. Obviously it would have been boring for viewers if patients started showing up with the same illnesses, but assuming that was an option, House and his team never made any assumptions based on patients they previously treated. Similarly there is no roadmap to analyzing data, it takes time and experience to know what you are looking at or for. You can learn from past experiences, but you should never assume two situations are ever going to be the same, this could lead to missing key pieces of data because you didn’t go off script. It takes a unique mind to truly mine raw data and the worst mistake you can make is assuming you know what the data says before you start analyzing. While there is plenty of software available to help organize the data, doing the analysis and making the insights is a human-driven process.
  3. There is no such thing as a rabbit hole when it comes to analyzing data. When trying to save a patient’s life, House would go to any length if he felt it could provide further insight. The same approach should be taken when looking at data. You may not always uncover a big ‘ah-ha’ or groundbreaking insight, but chasing data will always lead to a better understanding and deeper insights, if not always an actionable recommendation.
  4. Data is not emotional. The cases House treated that were most gut wrenching were those where kids were involved. But House never changed his approach and we shouldn’t either. While we may want to prove that our media campaign or website redesign outperformed expectations, we have to take an unbiased look at the data. Success doesn’t come without failures, and it is about learning from those failures to drive future success.

Chris Tuleya is Vice President, Direct Response, at Underscore Marketing, a firm that creates and manages integrated marketing programs for health and healthy brands.