According to Steve Lohr's recent article in The New York Times, up to now, the focus on the power and implications of Big Data technology has been involved social media, business decision-making and online privacy. Those are big subjects in their own right. So it’s not surprising that the notion of a data-driven society has not been much considered.
A small group of academics, business executives and journalists gathered at the M.I.T. Media Lab last Thursday, and the purpose was to toss out ideas and discuss the concept of “Data-Driven Societies.” A daunting topic, ambitious and vague at once, it seems.
But someone who has was host of the meeting: Alex Pentland, a computational social scientist at the Media Lab. He put his intellectual stake in the ground last year in a presentation posted on Edge.org, “Reinventing Society in the Wake of Big Data.”
Mr. Pentland’s starting point is that the most important data that is becoming available on a vast new scale is information about people’s behavior. For example, he cites location data from cellphones and evermore consumption data as people increasingly use credit cards for even the smallest purchases. He distinguishes this behavioral data from less-telling data — about people’s beliefs like Facebook communications or Google searches.
What might that mean in practice? Reed Hundt, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission in the Clinton administration, observed at the meeting that Big Data played a major role in the last election — a reference to the Obama campaign’s deft use of data analysis to identify potential Obama voters and encourage them to cast their ballots.
“You get elected with Big Data, but you govern without it,” Mr. Hundt said. “How much sense does that make?”
An underlying assumption of tilting toward a data-driven society is that, as one participant put it, “information over time wins out.” That is, data will change attitudes and policy, combating bias and causing policy-making to be more of a science. To data optimists, then, the endless political squabbling and stalemate in Washington points to all the room there is for improvement.
In a Big Data world, the data-mining for patterns and insights to guide policy will be done automatically — by software algorithms. Of course, algorithms are created by people and they contain inferences and assumptions coded in. Those coded-in values shape the output — computer-generated predictions, recommendations and simulations.
That raises question of the human design and control of the computerized helpers in policy-making, as in other realms of decision-making. “At some point, you’re in the hands of the algorithm,” observed John Henry Clippinger, chief executive of the Institute for Data Driven Design, a nonprofit research and educational organization. “You’re whistling in the dark if you don’t think that day is coming.”