The emergence of big data offers not only a potential boon for social scientific inquiry, but also raises distinct epistemological issues for this new area of research. Drawing on interviews conducted with researchers at the forefront of big data research, we offer insight into questions of causal versus correlational research, the use of inductive methods, and the utility of theory in the big data age. While our interviewees acknowledge challenges posed by the emergence of big data approaches, they reassert the importance of fundamental tenets of social science research such as establishing causality and drawing on existing theory. They also discussed more pragmatic issues, such as collaboration between researchers from different fields, and the utility of mixed methods. We conclude by putting the themes emerging from our interviews into the broader context of the role of data in social scientific inquiry, and draw lessons about the future role of big data in research.
The following is a slightly edited version of a talk I gave at the Data Power conference in Sheffield this week, presenting work by myself and Ralph Schroeder.
The question of what drives news coverage far pre-dates the Internet and the rise of social media, and over the decades – or indeed the centuries – of mass media, myriad explanations have been offered in answer. Continue reading “Big Data – What’s New(s)?”→
The increasing abundance of data creates new opportunities for communities of interest and communities of practice. We believe that interactive tabletops will allow users to explore data in familiar places such as living rooms, cafés, and public spaces. We propose informal, mobile possibilities for future generations of flexible and portable tabletops. In this paper, we build upon current advances in sensing and in organic user interfaces to propose how tabletops in the future could encourage collaboration and engage users in socially relevant data-oriented activities. Our work focuses on the socio-technical challenges of future democratic deliberation. As part of our vision, we suggest switching from fixed to mobile tabletops and provide two examples of hypothetical interface types: TableTiles and Moldable Displays. We consider how tabletops could foster future civic communities, expanding modes of participation originating in the Greek Agora and in European notions of cafés as locales of political deliberation.
In definitional terms, big data is, as we are repeatedly told, a matter of volume, velocity, variety and sometimes veracity. But perhaps as a result of a fifth v, the vagueness of this definition, those discussing the present and future impact of big data on society routinely describe big data more figuratively and evocatively. Often, this metaphorical definition takes the form of a liquid. Streams of big data flow andcascade between – and sometimes leak from – organisations. Continue reading “Big Data: the New Water or the New Oil?”→
Much excitement surrounds the use of social sources of big data – harvested from popular networking platforms like Twitter and Facebook, as well as other forms of socially generated data including Wikipedia edits and Google searches – in the pursuit of social scientific discovery. In this paper I assess the extent to which these newly available sources of socially-generated big data can tell us about public opinion in a society at large. I draw on data from a series of interviews conducted with researchers at the forefront of big data approaches to social science, in order to outline the opportunities and issues around this area of research. In my analysis I identify three challenges to the validity of online public opinion measurement – the reliability of the data collected, the representativeness of the ‘sample’ being analysed, and the replicability of this form of public opinion research – and suggest various ways in which these challenges can be met.
The past fortnight saw the first ripples of reaction to the European Court of Justice’s assertion of a citizen’s ‘right to be forgotten’ online. Following the court’s ruling, Google began the implementation of a process whereby individuals can petition for the removal of links in search results to pages deemed objectionable.
One of the early discussions emerging at our ‘Big Data for Social Change’ at the Rockefeller Center in Bellagio surrounds how the act of capturing of big data impinges on our understanding of it. There are three strands in particular which have been flagged up. Firstly, who does the counting? As Marc Ventresca has showed, the shift from ecclesiastical to secular authority in the collection of data affected perceptions of society, for example shifting the focus to the individual from the collective. The national census is not an impassive, aloof process but rather a culturally and politically significant object, reflecting and reinforcing societal debate and conflict. This significance is reflected in the 1918 observation that, “the science of statistics is the chief instrumentality through which the progress of civilization is now measured, and by which its development hereafter will be largely controlled”.Continue reading “Big Data in Bellagio: who counts, what counts, and how do we count?”→