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09 January 2008

G is for ground truth

Groundtruth The radar is a tremendous tool for seeing what is going on in the atmosphere, but it cannot tell us for sure what is going on in the ground. This is what the spotters do for us—get us the ground-truth information. – Howard Waldron

In 2008, I will seek out the ground truth, and not rely on satellite, remote sensing truth.

In his brilliant book on change, Paul Watzlawick tells the story of philosophers endlessly philosophizing and searching centuries-old texts to discover whether oil will freeze when left in a container outside on a cold evening.

Um. Why not just set some oil outside in a container on a cold evening to see if it will freeze?

As a young pup just starting to look at diversity issues inside organizations from my vantage point as a vice president of a nonprofit organization, an executive in a major global corporation provided an opportunity for me to shadow their senior vice president of global diversity for a day to explore the world of issues they were facing from a diversity perspective.

I put on my best power suit, flew to Chicago, and spent most of the day trying to impress her rather than learning from her. “Oh,” I would intone knowingly with a nod, “what would you say are the most pressing cultural issues facing your blah-blah-blah-blather…” “What about the intersectionality of the blah-blah?”

“Have you read the latest HBR article on blah-blah?” I would ask. “You really should. So-and-So Important Person Repeating Much of What Has Been Written Before (as do we all) has an interesting theory about Blip Blip.”

And so it went.

I had been hearing a lot about the need to do diversity assessments inside organizations, and so—just before lunch—I pinched her very last nerve by asking about the epistemological assumptions underlying blah-blah employee assessments, at which point she sighed (heavily), closed the notebook in which I strongly suspect she was drawing a voodoo doll of the man who had gotten her into this in the first place, and dragged my sorry self to lunch. As we got to the employee cafeteria, she asked, “you wanna know how I assess the diversity issues here?” With that, she swept her arm over the crowd in the cafeteria. “This is my assessment tool. I don’t need a 200-item computerized, psychometric assessment tool. I can come to this cafeteria and see all the segregated groups in here and know we’re not where we should be as far as diversity goes.”

That’s what ground truth is. Not the theoretical high falutin’ shot-from-space satellite pictures, but what’s really happening, on the ground—or at the very least, a comparison of the two pictures, not a denial of the one we don’t want to see. That’s ground truth. Not the media spin on a war, but the blog posts of young soldiers on the ground, and the final messages of those killed.

Ground truth is a term used in cartography, meteorology, satellite imagery, and other remote sensing techniques in which data are gathered at a distance. Ground truth refers to information that is collected "on location." It is done on site. It is putting the oil in a barrel and dragging it outside. It is comparing the pixels of the satellite image of our lives, our organizations, our kids’ social circles, with surface observations: owning up to the daily reality of our lives against our hopes for them, checking out the company cafeteria against what the data tell us, inviting our kids’ tribe of friends to our house to get to know them. It is hearing the real story. It is, sometimes, telling the real story, to ourselves, or to others.

What is the satellite image of my life? And what is the ground truth?

Intentions: We rely too much on satellite images of our lives—seen from afar, maps created for others to see, not geographies of what is really happening. This year, I will ask myself: What is the ground truth in this situation? Who are the spotters on the ground who will tell me the truth? Let’s go beyond the network news version of the truth to something closer to the ground.

From the last alphabet challenge: G is for gifts


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PATTI: "G is for Ground Truth" is just ONE fine example of what I'm sayin' here: Reading your weavings of thoughts, theories and ideas for better-living is like standing back and marvelling at the threads co-mingling through a fabric of some fantastic tapestry. You are my Carole King of Blogdom!

What comes to mind immediately is the effort we exert to provide the "satellite images" to anyone who is close enough that they interact with us, in addition to wanting to believe them ourselves.

We need to seek the ground truth, and, at some point if we are going to survive this experience as a species, we need to allow that very-same truth to be seen by those who we live with, work with, and play with.

You are my Joni Mitchell of the blog world, Patti. Just keep writing, as I understand there may be an issue or several should you ever burst into song. (editor's note: there is no evidence to support this theory)

Mary - so great to hear from you, my friend! Thanks for your fabulous note (blush). You made me laugh with the Carole King of Blogdom!

Rick - so true. I think we project those satellite images as a defense mechanism, don't we? And then one day, we start believing them ourselves... Ah, Joni Mitchell. You also made me laugh. Hey! What's wrong with my singing?!

How did you both know I always wanted to be a rock star?

I am concerned about the subjective nature of collecting the 'truth' -- ground or otherwise.

Who gets to gather it?
What is regarded as 'information'?
And what is regarded as the 'truth'?

All too often, it is those with positions of power and authority who get to decide what the "truth" is.

Just this week I heard that players on our high school's football team segregate themselves on the bench by color. That's ground truth. The satellite imagery meanwhile would tell you that I live in what many consider not just one of the most liberal towns in the most liberal state...but probably one of the most liberal towns (by reputation) in the country.

Fascinating, Patti. Today a grandma told her grandson, there's three sides to every story: your side, the other person's side, and the TRUTH.

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