Saving Big Data from Big Mouths

Those who would condemn big data ought to try making something
big data

There has been a lot of hype about big data and it is important not to inflate our expectations about what it can do.
Credit: DARPA via Wikimedia Commons

SA Forum is an invited essay from experts on topical issues in science and technology.

It has become fashionable to bad-mouth big data. In recent weeks the New York Times, Financial Times, Wired and other outlets have all run pieces bashing this new technological movement. To be fair, many of the critiques have a point: There has been a lot of hype about big data and it is important not to inflate our expectations about what it can do.
But little of this hype has come from the actual people working with large data sets. Instead, it has come from people who see “big data” as a buzzword and a marketing opportunity—consultants, event organizers and opportunistic academics looking for their 15 minutes of fame.
Most of the recent criticism, however, has been weak and misguided. Naysayers have been attacking straw men, focusing on worst practices, post hoc failures and secondary sources. The common theme has been to a great extent obvious: “Correlation does not imply causation,” and “data has biases.”
Critics of big data have been making three important mistakes:
First, they have misunderstood big data, framing it narrowly as a failed revolution in social science hypothesis testing. In doing so they ignore areas where big data has made substantial progress, such as data-rich Web sites, information visualization and machine learning. If there is one group of big-data practitioners that the critics should worship, they are the big-data engineers building the social media sites where their platitudes spread. Engineering a site rich in data, like Facebook, YouTube, Vimeo or Twitter, is extremely challenging. These sites are possible because of advances made quietly over the past five years, including improvements in database technologies and Web development frameworks.
Big data has also contributed to machine learning and computer vision. Thanks to big data, Facebook algorithms can now match faces almost as accurately as humans do.
And detractors have overlooked big data’s role in the proliferation of computational design, data journalism and new forms of artistic expression. Computational artists, journalists and designers—the kinds of people who congregate at meetings like Eyeo—are using huge sets of data to give us online experiences that are unlike anything we experienced in paper. If we step away from hypothesis testing, we find that big data has made big contributions.
The second mistake critics often make is to confuse the limitations of prototypes with fatal flaws. This is something I have experienced often. For example, in Place Pulse—a project I created with my team the M.I.T. Media Lab—we used Google Street View images and crowdsourced visual surveys to map people’s perception of a city’s safety and wealth. The original method was rife with limitations that we dutifully acknowledged in our paper. Google Street View images are taken at arbitrary times of the day and showed cities from the perspective of a car. City boundaries were also arbitrary. To overcome these limitations, however, we needed a first data set. Producing that first limited version of Place Pulse was a necessary part of the process of making a working prototype.
A year has passed since we published Place Pulse’s first data set. Now, thanks to our focus on “making,” we have computer vision and machine-learning algorithms that we can use to correct for some of these easy-to-spot distortions. Making is allowing us to correct for time of the day and dynamically define urban boundaries. Also, we are collecting new data to extend the method to new geographical boundaries.
Those who fail to understand that the process of making is iterative are in danger of  being too quick to condemn promising technologies.  In 1920 the New York Times published a prediction that a rocket would never be able to leave  atmosphere. Similarly erroneous predictions were made about the car or, more recently, about iPhone’s market share. In 1969 the Times had to publish a retraction of their 1920 claim. What similar retractions will need to be published in the year 2069?
Finally, the doubters have relied too heavily on secondary sources. For instance, they made a piñata out of the 2008 Wired piece by Chris Anderson framing big data as “the end of theory.” Others have criticized projects for claims that their creators never made. A couple of weeks ago, for example, Gary Marcus and Ernest Davis published a piece on big data in the Times. There they wrote about another of one of my group’s projects, Pantheon, which is an effort to collect, visualize and analyze data on historical cultural production. Marcus and Davis wrote that Pantheon “suggests a misleading degree of scientific precision.” As an author of the project, I have been unable to find where I made such a claim. Pantheon’s method section clearly states that: “Pantheon will always be—by construction—an incomplete resource.” That same section contains a long list of limitations and caveats as well as the statement that “we interpret this data set narrowly, as the view of global cultural production that emerges from the multilingual expression of historical figures in Wikipedia as of May 2013.”
Bickering is easy, but it is not of much help. So I invite the critics of big data to lead by example. Stop writing op–eds and start developing tools that improve on the state of the art. They are much appreciated. What we need are projects that are worth imitating and that we can build on, not obvious advice such as “correlation does not imply causation.” After all, true progress is not something that is written, but made.

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