Big Data & Society: Read Top Articles

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  • Big Data, new epistemologies and paradigm shifts by Rob Kitchin. Abstract: This article examines how the availability of Big Data, coupled with new data analytics, challenges established epistemologies across the sciences, social sciences and humanities, and assesses the extent to which they are engendering paradigm shifts across multiple disciplines. In particular, it critically explores new forms of empiricism that declare ‘the end of theory’, the creation of data-driven rather than knowledge-driven science, and the development of digital humanities and computational social sciences that propose radically different ways to make sense of culture, history, economy and society. It is argued that: (1) Big Data and new data analytics are disruptive innovations which are reconfiguring in many instances how research is conducted; and (2) there is an urgent need for wider critical reflection within the academy on the epistemological implications of the unfolding data revolution, a task that has barely begun to be tackled despite the rapid changes in research practices presently taking place. After critically reviewing emerging epistemological positions, it is contended that a potentially fruitful approach would be the development of a situated, reflexive and contextually nuanced epistemology
  • Surveillance, Snowden, and Big Data: Capacities, consequences, critique by David Lyon. Abstract: Abstract: The Snowden revelations about National Security Agency surveillance, starting in 2013, along with the ambiguous complicity of internet companies and the international controversies that followed provide a perfect segue into contemporary conundrums of surveillance and Big Data. Attention has shifted from late C20th information technologies and networks to a C21st focus on data, currently crystallized in “Big Data.” Big Data intensifies certain surveillance trends associated with information technology and networks, and is thus implicated in fresh but fluid configurations. This is considered in three main ways: One, the capacities of Big Data (including metadata) intensify surveillance by expanding interconnected datasets and analytical tools. Existing dynamics of influence, risk-management, and control increase their speed and scope through new techniques, especially predictive analytics. Two, while Big Data appears to be about size, qualitative change in surveillance practices is also perceptible, accenting consequences. Important trends persist – the control motif, faith in technology, public-private synergies, and user-involvement – but the future-orientation increasingly severs surveillance from history and memory and the quest for pattern-discovery is used to justify unprecedented access to data. Three, the ethical turn becomes more urgent as a mode of critique. Modernity’s predilection for certain definitions of privacy betrays the subjects of surveillance who, so far from conforming to the abstract, disembodied image of both computing and legal practices, are engaged and embodied users-in-relation whose activities both fuel and foreclose surveillance.
  • Emerging practices and perspectives on Big Data analysis in economics: Bigger and better or more of the same? by Linnet Taylor, Ralph Schroeder, and Eric Meyer. Abstract: Although the terminology of Big Data has so far gained little traction in economics, the availability of unprecedentedly rich datasets and the need for new approaches – both epistemological and computational – to deal with them is an emerging issue for the discipline. Using interviews conducted with a cross-section of economists, this paper examines perspectives on Big Data across the discipline, the new types of data being used by researchers on economic issues, and the range of responses to this opportunity amongst economists. First, we outline the areas in which it is being used, including the prediction and ‘nowcasting’ of economic trends; mapping and predicting influence in the context of marketing; and acting as a cheaper or more accurate substitute for existing types of data such as censuses or labour market data. We then analyse the broader current and potential contributions of Big Data to economics, such as the ways in which econometric methodology is being used to shed light on questions beyond economics, how Big Data is improving or changing economic models, and the kinds of collaborations arising around Big Data between economists and other disciplines.
  • Networks of digital humanities scholars: The informational and social uses and gratifications of Twitter by Anabel Quan-Haase, Kim Martin, and Lori McCay-Peet. Abstract: Big Data research is currently split on whether and to what extent Twitter can be characterized as an informational or social network. We contribute to this line of inquiry through an investigation of digital humanities (DH) scholars’ uses and gratifications of Twitter. We conducted a thematic analysis of 25 semi-structured interview transcripts to learn about these scholars’ professional use of Twitter. Our findings show that Twitter is considered a critical tool for informal communication within DH invisible colleges, functioning at varying levels as both an information network (learning to ‘Twitter’ and maintaining awareness) and a social network (imagining audiences and engaging other digital humanists). We find that Twitter follow relationships reflect common academic interests and are closely tied to scholars’ pre-existing social ties and conference or event co-attendance. The concept of the invisible college continues to be relevant but requires revisiting. The invisible college formed on Twitter is messy, consisting of overlapping social contexts (professional, personal and public), scholars with different habits of engagement, and both formal and informal ties. Our research illustrates the value of using multiple methods to explore the complex questions arising from Big Data studies and points toward future research that could implement Big Data techniques on a small scale, focusing on sub-topics or emerging fields, to expose the nature of scholars’ invisible colleges made visible on Twitter.
  • Small Big Data: Using multiple data-sets to explore unfolding social and economic change by Emily Gray, Will Jennings, Stephen Farrall, and Colin Hay. Abstract: Bold approaches to data collection and large-scale quantitative advances have long been a preoccupation for social science researchers. In this commentary we further debate over the use of large-scale survey data and official statistics with ‘Big Data’ methodologists, and emphasise the ability of these resources to incorporate the essential social and cultural heredity that is intrinsic to the human sciences. In doing so, we introduce a series of new data-sets that integrate approximately 30 years of survey data on victimisation, fear of crime and disorder and social attitudes with indicators of socio-economic conditions and policy outcomes in Britain. The data-sets that we outline below do not conform to typical conceptions of ‘Big Data’. But, we would contend, they are ‘big’ in terms of the volume, variety and complexity of data which has been collated (and to which additional data can be linked) and ‘big’ also in that they allow us to explore key questions pertaining to how social and economic policy change at the national level alters the attitudes and experiences of citizens. Importantly, they are also ‘small’ in the sense that the task of rendering the data usable, linking it and decoding it, required both manual processing and tacit knowledge of the context of the data and intentions of its creators.

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