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 and cascade between – and sometimes leak from – organisations. Continue reading “Big Data: the New Water or the New Oil?”
I’m currently writing up a paper for submission to the Internet, Politics and Policy 2014 conference to be held by the OII in September. My paper – which draws substantially on interviews conducted as part of the Sloan Foundation-funded project of which I’m part – asks whether and to what extent the measurement of public opinion has been transformed by the new availability of socially-generated sources of big data, such as social media postings and search queries, and the tools which allow us to analyse them. Continue reading “Social media and public opinion: what’s new?”
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?”
In March 2012, as Mitt Romney was seeking to win over conservative voters in his bid to become the Republican Party’s presidential nominee, his adviser Eric Fehrnstrom discussed concerns over his appeal to moderate voters later in the campaign, telling a CNN interviewer, “For the fall campaign … everything changes. It’s almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up, and we start all over again.” Fehrnstrom’s unfortunate response provided a memorable metaphor for the existing perception of Romney as a ‘flip-flopper’. Fehrnstrom’s opposite number in the Obama campaign, David Axelrod, would later jibe that “it’s hard to Etch-A-Sketch the truth away”, and indeed, tying Romney to his less appetising positions and comments formed a core component of the President’s successful re-election strategy. Continue reading “Preserving the present: the unique challenges of archiving the web”
During the construction of a jigsaw or model, there is invariably a moment in which one’s perception shifts from the level of ‘parts’ to the level of ‘whole’ – when, as it were, the bigger picture becomes clear. (Presumably the German language offers an elegant compound noun for this, but I am yet to come across it.) Since its ascension from first appearance to its current perch at the peak of inflated expectations, big data as a phenomenon has seemed to operate primarily on the level of parts or pieces. These usually take the form of noteworthy findings from or utilisations of big data that are eye-opening for one reason or another. Continue reading “Piecing Together the Value of Big Data”
“What social data can tell you: pretty much everything” proclaimed Azeem Azhar, founder of PeerIndex, in a popular post on LinkedIn earlier this week. We can perhaps forgive Azhar the hyperbolic lead-in, but hisarticle as a whole indulges in untrammeled evangelism for social data which obscures much of the nuance and uncertainty regarding what exactly this new source of data can actually tell us about society. Continue reading “Why social data isn’t always a reliable indicator”
“Like Noah’s ark, (there was) every kind of creature in every walk of life. They included a town wit, a grave citizen, a worthy lawyer, a worship justice, a reverend nonconformist, and a voluble sailor.”
The above description comes from a history of English coffee houses in the seventeenth century¹, but might just as well apply to the twenty first century’s sites of caffeinated conversation: online social networks. With the rapid uptake of the Internet and the more recent rise to prominence of social network sites like Facebook and Twitter, hundreds of millions of ordinary people – the witty, the worthy, and the decidedly neither – are now connected not only to the web, a source of news, but also to social networks, a source of views. Continue reading ““Twitter says…” – Can big social data tell us about public opinion?”
With modern technology, living life ‘in the moment’ has never been easier. But this new nowness is far from what earlier advocates had in mind, and might only be distracting us from the planet’s ever more pressing challenges. Continue reading “The new ‘power of now’ and the perils of the hyper-present”
Following an earlier, somewhat rantier post on this blog when the news originally broke, I’ve written a more academically-oriented piece on British political parties’ cyber-revisionism with Mor Rubenstein, a current MSc student here at the OII. This was published yesterday on the LSE Politics and Policy blog, and you can read it here. Mor’s undergraduate work on political parties on Facebook provided a useful counterpoint to party websites, and unearthed some deep ironies regarding the (dis)integration between the two platforms and some of the unintended consequences.
(The eagle-eyed may notice that the ‘Fahrenheit 401’ hook in the original post became ‘Fahrenheit 404’ – a less phonaesthetically evocative contrast with Bradbury’s 451 but more accurate, technically speaking…)