Big Data Is Cool Now
By Steve Lohr, a technology reporter for The New York Times
Welcome to the Age of Big Data. The new megarich of Silicon Valley, first at Google and now Facebook, are masters at harnessing the data of the Web — online searches, posts and messages — with Internet advertising. At the World Economic Forum last month in Davos, Switzerland, Big Data was a marquee topic. A report by the forum, “Big Data, Big Impact,” declared data a new class of economic asset, like currency or gold.
Rick Smolan, creator of the “Day in the Life” photography series, is planning a project later this year, “The Human Face of Big Data,” documenting the collection and uses of data. Mr. Smolan is an enthusiast, saying that Big Data has the potential to be “humanity’s dashboard,” an intelligent tool that can help combat poverty, crime and pollution. Privacy advocates take a dim view, warning that Big Data is Big Brother, in corporate clothing.
What is Big Data? A meme and a marketing term, for sure, but also shorthand for advancing trends in technology that open the door to a new approach to understanding the world and making decisions. There is a lot more data, all the time, growing at 50 percent a year, or more than doubling every two years, estimates IDC, a technology research firm. It’s not just more streams of data, but entirely new ones.
There is plenty of anecdotal evidence of the payoff from data-first thinking. The best-known is still “Moneyball,” the 2003 book by Michael Lewis, chronicling how the low-budget Oakland A’s massaged data and arcane baseball statistics to spot undervalued players. Heavy data analysis had become standard not only in baseball but also in other sports, including English soccer, well before last year’s movie version of “Moneyball,” starring Brad Pitt.
Big Data is already transforming the study of how social networks function. In the 1960s, Stanley Milgram of Harvard used packages as his research medium in a famous experiment in social connections. He sent packages to volunteers in the Midwest, instructing them to get the packages to strangers in Boston, but not directly; participants could mail a package only to someone they knew. The average number of times a package changed hands was remarkably few, about six. It was a classic demonstration of the “small-world phenomenon,” captured in the popular phrase “six degrees of separation.”
Today, social-network research involves mining huge digital data sets of collective behavior online. Among the findings: people whom you know but don’t communicate with often — “weak ties,” in sociology — are the best sources of tips about job openings. They travel in slightly different social worlds than close friends, so they see opportunities you and your best friends do not.
Data is in the driver’s seat. It’s there, it’s useful and it’s valuable, even hip.
Veteran data analysts tell of friends who were long bored by discussions of their work but now are suddenly curious. “Moneyball” helped, they say, but things have gone way beyond that. “The culture has changed,” says Andrew Gelman, a statistician and political scientist at Columbia University. “There is this idea that numbers and statistics are interesting and fun. It’s cool now.”
This is an excerpt from an article by Steve Lohr, a technology reporter for The New York Times.
Click here to read the full article.