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College of Arts and Sciences

Dean's Blog

Big Data

August 2, 2013

By: Mary Anne Fitzpatrick

For a number of years I have refused to give my zip code when buying an item in a store and I do not participate in the loyalty savings card plans at grocery stores.   If you provide your name and zip code, all of your purchases at a given store can be collected over time and the data on your buying preferences can be stored and analyzed.   I avoid participating actively in data collection that allows companies to develop specific targeted marketing campaigns aimed at me.

But my avoidance seems to be quixotic as this is the era of Big Data

The ability to amass staggering amounts of information about human behavior including but not limited to consumer behavior is an order of magnitude greater than ever before.  Data can come from social media like Facebook and Twitter or any number of connected devices including payment terminals and the ubiquitous audio and video records being amassed. And we have all been reading about our National Security Agency and the data they have been collecting on us.

Why am I, an arts and sciences dean, writing about big data? I am writing because the challenges and opportunities presented by big data extend beyond the development of predictive marketing algorithms, supply chain models, and business analytics.  

Physicists in our college are collecting more data in a few days than previous generations did throughout history.  Biologists are mapping the genome of a variety of species. Some psychologists are mapping the human brain and others are analyzing Twitter accounts to examine linguistic choices as reflecting on daily mood states.  Social psychologists are tapping social networks on Facebook and examining the outcomes of media usage.  And so on.

Across all of the academic disciplines, the ability to handle, link and analyze massive amounts of data to answer important questions about the natural and social world is key element to our success. The college through its Interdisciplinary Mathematics Institute has the cutting edge faculty to take on the challenges of converting big data into useful knowledge.  Institute researchers in applied and computational mathematics can develop, test and refine the necessary models for their colleagues in a number of disciplines.

There are risks associated with using big data.  Simply because you have massive amounts does not mean that the data does not suffer from all of the usual problems of smaller data sets: reliability and validity of the measures and so on.  Many say that big data is so complex that it can only be interpreted by very few data experts. 

Using big data brings along new ethical and legal questions. There are real issues for our society about collecting and storing information about our citizens.  Major debates about how we as a democratic society balance the need for security against the freedom we prize are occurring every day in our country and our classrooms. Similar issues arise when big data is used in research.

Big data is here to stay and it brings as many questions and problems with it as it does answers and solutions.

Read Previous Posts By Dean Fitzpatrick.