What’s the Big Deal about Big Data? Social Scientists Determine Cause Of Death At A Distance

While it might sound a little like an oxymoron, “social science technology” –especially in this era of big data – is both real and valuable. With it, says Gary King, the director of Harvard’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science, “you can solve problems that you couldn’t have solved otherwise. And you can also solve problems that you never even realized existed.”

In this fourth video clip drawn from a talk King made earlier this year on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. to an audience filled with policymakers and fellow academics, he gives two examples drawn from his own lab’s research that demonstrates the truth of his statement. The event, hosted by SAGE Publishing with co-sponsors the American Political Science Association and the American Statistical Association, was titled “The big deal about big data.”

King prefaces his examples by describing some “bad analytics,” such as the effort to classify emerging health threats from the developing world by using “verbal autopsies” in cases where trained medical personnel can’t inspect the actual victim. After hearing a list of the deceased’s symptoms, a physician far away renders a verdict on the cause of death. What happens, King said, is that often a different physician told the same thing renders a different decision.

“Physicians,” he said bluntly, “were useless in this context.”

But there’s a way to get reliable population statistics from this data morass using the power of social science technology. They thinking behind the method, King explains, is that researchers “don’t care about any one — they care about everyone.” In short, researchers don’t concern themselves with any individual event, but with percentages drawn from the totality. “The key is estimating percentages,” he concludes.

And this big data approach isn’t useful only in this context, as listeners will hear in the video below:

Videos in the series

  1. Ziyad Marar On The Opportunities That Big Data Provides Social Scientists
  2. What Makes Big Data Valuable?
  3. Examples: Exciting Data That Is Useless Without Analytics
  4. Example: Social Scientists Determine Cause Of Death At A Distance
  5. Example: Analysis Rids Social Security Forecasts Of Bias
  6. Example: New Data Methods Combat Gerrymandering
  7. Example: Big Data Much Better Than People At Determining Keywords
  8. Example: Watching Chinese Citizens Get Around Censorship
  9. Example: Learning The Real Reason For Chinese Censorship
  10. The Spectacular Success Of Quantitative Social Science
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