June 24th 2020
Product Manager, Solution Architect, Amateur Historian
“Then the storm broke, and the dragons danced.” ― George R.R. Martin,
Fire & Blood
All the data matters now, more than ever! We need to be looking deeply and broadly at this once in a lifetime counterfactual unfolding in front of us on a global scale.
The Covid-19 outbreak is one of the greatest “what if” scenarios in human history, the first apoplectic apex of globalization and disease-a Sci-Fi story that’s losing the latter half of its hyphenation. So what are the unfamiliar patterns starting right now? How is travel shifting and how are people moving around? If you’re a PM selling a service, this new data should be at the front of your mind.
The initial customer survey strategy might not appear useful in the short term, but precise historical records of both decisions and their respective outcomes can drive scenario planning for at least two decades in the travel and service verticals.
Leaders should spur the rollout of a broad-based employee, stakeholder, and customer survey at routine intervals.
This historical record-keeping has proved hugely beneficial-or detrimental, depending on where your sympathies lie – in the past to strategic decision making. When steeped in the Vietnam crisis, the U.S. Department of Defense saw it had just this gap. The American Empire was in a Gordian knot of its own creation, a quagmire with very few optics to move forward. At least at the top-level, we find ourselves with a similar issue when facing Covid-19, a lack of cohesive data sets.
Despite its significant investment and military might, the U.S. Government was not making any progress on its strategic goals in Vietnam by the mid-1960s. The Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, who in the 1950s modernized Ford Motor Company in a data-driven way, was looking for evidence of how and why things were going so poorly. However, he could not find a centralized and comprehension report doing just that! There had been four administrations involved in the conflict by that time, so no one had the full picture. Thus the Gordian knot restricted with each new strategy the Defence Secretary tried -given the complexity on the ground. Optimization of one part of the strategy would only surface externalities somewhere else, driving a system-wide sub-optimization of the American efforts.
To gain a wider perspective, McNamara commissioned a study by the Rand Corporation to investigate how decisions were being made in Vietnam, and the quality of those decisions. McNamara’s goal was for historians and American policymakers to study this work to better inform their decision making in the future.
While these “Pentagon Papers” would also be McNamara’s downfall-in the view of the American public-when they leaked, they were an essential tool for both the U.S. Government and later the academy. The contribution of the “Pentagon Papers” to the academic study of the strategy was immense!
“History is written by the winners, and those that bother to write it down.” -unknown
We need to think retrospectively from the future, what is the “Pentagon Papers” like study we need right now, and how we plan to make decisions in 2 years. What data do we then need at that junction? To do that, and come out ahead, we need broad historical data, thorough record-keeping, and a plethora of anecdotes. I bet you dollars to donuts there are multiple teams working on this at the Gates Foundation even while this essay is being crafted.
While crisis teams often document what they do, these are often only small windows during a security, financial, or infrastructure event and isolated to certain teams. “Need to know” operational rules are essential to contain the leaking of sensitive information, but they also have a shadow side- the siloing of data.
What if something like this has already been in the works for months? As product managers in the travel industry across the world, are burning the midnight oil, to find this new data.
“The COVID-19 Travel Database is a free access database to support the travel industry through the reopening period, providing a single data source for travellers in a period of low travel confidence. It’s a project from the European COVID-19 Travel Alliance, formed by leading travel brands such as Barcelo Hotels, Booking.com, Eurowings, Flixmobility, Iberostar Hotels, KLM, Radisson Hotel Group and trivago. We believe that strong cooperation between market participants will help rebuild travel demand in a safe and sustainable manner. Specifically, we seek to help travellers explore destinations and enable them to make informed, confident and safe travel decisions.”
This is the first time in history the world’s travel data will be openly and dynamically shared for all of humanity, through an independent institution and outside of sole corporate governance. People traveling the world over will get up-to-date information across the entire travel stack -flights, hotels, rental cars, and restaurants. We can restore customer confidence, useful information drives out fear, and sunlight is the best disinfectant. Given this data will be open to the public, it will also cause a surge in academic research and startup innovation, both things we desperately need right now. Projects these travel giants will then hope to back.
When we travel again, you’ll have all the information you need. Let’s forge the future, share our data, and to quote the great astronaut, and Martian, Matt Damon, we’re “going to have to science the shit out of this,” together.
“Sometimes fate is like a small sandstorm that keeps changing directions. You change direction but the sandstorm chases you. You turn again, but the storm adjusts. Over and over you play this out, like some ominous dance with death just before dawn. Why? Because this storm isn’t something that has nothing to do with you, This storm is you. Something inside you. So all you can do is give in to it, step right inside the storm, closing your eyes and plugging up your ears so the sand doesn’t get in, and walk through it, step by step. There’s no sun there, no moon, no direction, no sense of time. Just fine white sand swirling up the sky like pulverized bones.”
Kafka on the Shore
If you’re in the travel or tech industry, please go here for more information and share out the press release! We need as many publishers (and then subscribers) as possible to make it work for our customers. The travel industry needed a system-wide perspective across the travel stack. That database is now here-and we can break this Gordian knot-together.