The backlash against big data

Date: 21-04-2014
Source: The Economist

“BOLLOCKS”, says a Cambridge professor. “Hubris,” write researchers at Harvard. “Big data is bullshit,” proclaims Obama’s reelection chief number-cruncher. A few years ago almost no one had heard of “big data”. Today it’s hard to avoid—and as a result, the digerati love to condemn it. Wired, Time, Harvard Business Review and other publications are falling over themselves to dance on its grave. “Big data: are we making a big mistake?,” asks the Financial Times. “Eight (No, Nine!) Problems with Big Data,” says the New York Times. What explains the big-data backlash?

Big data refers to the idea that society can do things with a large body of data that that weren’t possible when working with smaller amounts. The term was originally applied a decade ago to massive datasets from astrophysics, genomics and internet search engines, and to machine-learning systems (for voice-recognition and translation, for example) that only work well when given lots of data to chew on. Now it refers to the application of data-analysis and statistics in new areas, from retailing to human resources. The backlash began in mid-March, prompted by an article in Science by David Lazer and others at Harvard and Northeastern University. It showed that a big-data poster-child—Google Flu Trends, a 2009 project which identified flu outbreaks from search queries alone—had overestimated the number of cases for four years running, compared with reported data from the Centres for Disease Control (CDC). This led to a wider attack on the idea of big data.

The criticisms fall into three areas that are not intrinsic to big data per se, but endemic to data analysis, and have some merit. First, there are biases inherent to data that must not be ignored. That is undeniably the case. Second, some proponents of big data have claimed that theory (ie, generalisable models about how the world works) is obsolete. In fact, subject-area knowledge remains necessary even when dealing with large data sets. Third, the problem of spurious correlations—associations that are statistically robust but only happen by chance—increases with more data. Although there are new statistical techniques to identify and banish spurious correlations, such as running many tests against subsets of the data, this will always be a problem.

There is some merit to the naysayers’ case, in other words. But these criticisms do not mean that big-data analysis has no merit whatsoever. Even the Harvard researchers who decried big data “hubris” admitted in Science that melding Google Flu Trends analysis with CDC’s data improved the overall forecast—showing that big data can in fact be a useful tool. And research published in PLOS Computational Biology on April 17th shows it is possible to estimate the prevalence of the flu based on visits to Wikipedia articles related to the flu. Behind the big data backlash is the classic hype cycle, in which a technology’s early proponents make overly grandiose claims, people sling arrows when those promises fall flat, but the technology eventually transforms the world, though not necessarily in ways the pundits expected. It happened with the web, and television, radio, motion pictures and the telegraph before it. Now it is simply big data’s turn to face the grumblers.

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