“The Big Deal about Big Data?” The Big Analysis!

By Michael Todd, Social Science Communications Manager, SAGE Publishing

IMG_1247Near the end of his presentation Wednesday on Capitol Hill, political scientist Gary King – director of the Institute for Quantitative Social Science at Harvard University –asked the audience of academics and policymakers (and policy-enacters) what they considered were the most important ways that university research had impacted their lives. After throwing out a few of the expected answers, he brought up his own: quantitative social science.

Citing the “spectacular success” of quantitative social science that mirror the spectacular increases in data to be analyzed, he showed how the bedrock of modern life rests on a foundation cemented in place by quantitative investigations and the results of that research. “Facebook,” he said, “is basically a social science innovation.”

King’s talk at the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill was the keynote for SAGE Publishing and CQ Press’s “The Big Deal About Big Data: Improving national security and public policy decision-making.” The event, presented in partnership with the American Political Science Association and the American Statistical Association, aimed to give political leaders and bureaucrats in the American capital both a primer on the utility of so-called Big Data and an object lesson on the importance of astute methodology to interpret that metastasizing mass of information.

The afternoon reception included introductory remarks by Ziyad Marar, SAGE’s Director of Global Publishing, who helped connect the social science dots linking policy, academe and SAGE-published scholarship.

Given SAGE’s focus on innovative social and behavioral research methodology, King was an excellent ambassador to explain not just the nicety, but the necessity, of good methods. He opened his talk by reflecting the lecture’s title. “What is the big deal about Big Data? Not the data!” he answered, and not even the big, he added.  Big data is easy to come by and essentially a byproduct of things we’re more interested in, making it more of a commodity than a finished product.

The value of Big Data, he continued, lay in the analysis of it. He then gave a series of examples of how Big Data (which mostly had been collected for other purposes) was intelligently analyzed, or perhaps re-analyzed, to come up with important policy prescriptions. Those examples included reviewing the Social Security Administration’s overly rosy assumptions , which has a direct bearing on the health of the nation’s vitally important superannuation system; how voting districts in America are redrawn to assure minority interests are safeguarded even though secret ballots prevent us from knowing who exactly voted how; and how we can identify mortality causes in developing countries drawing from spotty sources and without having physicians reviewing each ‘verbal autopsy.’

His most recent example came from his work studying censorship in China. He explained that by comparing the pre-censored social media in China with the post-censored social media, his team could “reverse engineer what the intentions of the censors were.” While the most engaging portion of his anecdote demonstrated how cyber-literate Chinese learn to speak their minds by coming up with new types of language to express forbidden sentiments, the policy-pertinent portion demonstrated that the Chinese government was less interested in shutting down grumbling and actually focused on preventing any forms of collective action.

King closed his prepared remarks by urging business, academe and government to craft a “treaty” on data – its collection, retention and ultimate its sharing – the would allow all the partners to serve their interests while benefiting research and not trampling on the privacy rights of the public.

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