More on the hype, benefits, and dangers of Big Data

When I wrote The hype, benefits, and dangers of Big Data a few months ago I thought it would be my only post about Big Data, and then I’d move on. But 2013 appears to be the year of Big Data, so you can’t turn a corner on the web without bumping into an article about it. Looking at Google Trends, it’s clear that interest is at an all-time high:

So I wanted to point out just a few more articles that range from calling for a more tempered approach to Big Data to an all-out assault on its value and validity. Let’s start with the juicy one…

In A More Thoughtful but No More Convincing View of Big Data Stephen Few reviews the book Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think and uses it as a way to articulate his distaste with the whole thing:

Data exists in a potentially infinite supply. Given this fact, wouldn’t it be wise to determine with great care what we collect, store, retain, and mine for value? To the extent that more people are turning to data for help these days, learning to depend on evidence rather than intuition alone to inform their decisions, should we accept the Big Data campaign as helpful? We can turn people on to data without claiming that something miraculous has changed in the data landscape over the last few years. […]

As data continues to increase in volume, velocity, and variety as it has since the advent of the computer, its potential for wise use increases as well, but only if we refine our ability to separate the signals from the noise. More does not trump better. Without the right data and skills, more will only bury us.

It’s a long article, but very detailed and highly recommended as a well-reasoned counter-argument to the Big Data movement. Others are a little more pragmatic, suggesting that we improve on the promise of Big Data rather than destroy it. In Coffee & Empathy: Why data without a soul is meaningless1 Om Malik states:

What will it take to build emotive-and-empathic data experiences? Less data science and more data art — which, in other words, means that data wranglers have to develop correlations between data much like the human brain finds context. It is actually not about building the fanciest machine, but instead about the ability to ask the human questions. It is not about just being data informed, but being data aware and data intelligent.

It’s important to take this further and say the soul Om talks about needs to come from qualitative methods like ethnography. That’s why I like Dave McColgin’s point in his article How Will Big Data Change Design Research?:

In our field of designing products and experiences, the ‘why’ stays at the center of our process and creativity. Many designers work mostly on new products and services for which there may not yet be reliable data available. […] While Big Data can inform designers on how to improve once they put something out there, it is design research that provides principled guidance towards good solutions all along the way. Big Data can’t help us do that right now.

Tricia Wang’s Big Data Needs Thick Data is another excellent plea for ethnographers to get involved in the Big Data movement, to produce what she calls “Thick Data”:

Big Data produces so much information that it needs something more to bridge and/or reveal knowledge gaps. That’s why ethnographic work holds such enormous value in the era of Big Data. […]

Big Data reveals insights with a particular range of data points, while Thick Data reveals the social context of and connections between data points. Big Data delivers numbers; thick data delivers stories. Big data relies on machine learning; thick data relies on human learning.

And finally, Martin U. Müller and Marcel Rosenbach look at some of the scarier implications of Big Data in Living by the Numbers: Big Data Knows What Your Future Holds:

Is it truly desirable for cultural assets like TV series or music albums to be tailored to our predicted tastes by means of data-driven analyses? What happens to creativity, intuition and the element of surprise in this totally calculated world?

Internet philosopher Evgeny Morozov warns of an impending “tyranny of algorithms” and is fundamentally critical of the ideology behind many current Big Data applications. Morozov argues that because formulas are increasingly being used in finance and, as in the case of Predictive Policing, in police work, they should be regularly reviewed by independent, qualified auditors — if only to prevent discrimination and abuses of power.

I personally think there is the same value in data that there has always been, and that the Big Data movement isn’t so much about the size of the data sets, but the ability to extract more of that inherent value (signal) from the noise. But an algorithm will only take you so far. As always, knowing what and how much is not very useful without knowing why. And Big Data will never be able to tell us why…


  1. What’s that? You think I’ll just automatically link to any article with the word “coffee” in the headline? I resent that accusation, sir or madam!