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What is big data?

Concert crowd

Big data is a major area of interest for businesses, government and academics. Big data cuts across the departments, institutes and faculties here at Warwick, and we have many leading researchers exploring the world of big data and investigating the opportunities for government, business and society more broadly.

Big data is a big subject and one that can be viewed from a number of different perspectives and disciplines. Based on their area of expertise, we asked some of our leading academics for their view on what big data means to them.

1. It’s an umbrella term

“This is the age of data and we’re only just beginning to discover that. I think as we look back, thirty years from now, we’ll see this shift and the change of emphasis to data that’s knitting machines together and changing the way we live.

“Big data is an umbrella term. If you talk to a statistician, big data is developing mathematical methods to perform analysis; if you talk to a physicist, it’s the huge data sets they get from their studies in astronomy and if you talk to a computer scientist it’s about how you build platforms to support analysis. We’re all coming in, as different bricks to lay the foundations for the subject that is big data.”

Professor Stephen Jarvis, Department of Computer Science

2. It's human interaction

“It’s a new form of information. It’s the type of data that’s coming from the internet revolution – information that’s being generated by human interactions in large technological systems, via the internet and also information that’s released through connected devices. It's human interaction on a very large scale which gives us a lot of data points to better understand human behaviour and to use it, ultimately, to better forecast how human systems might develop over time.”

Associate Professor Tobias Preis, Warwick Business School

3. It’s about potential

“About 15 years ago I was working with people in a field called ‘massive data’ and this was the data generated, primarily, by large internet and telecommunications companies. There was lots of information about what phone calls were happening, all the data connections, etc. We did a lot of work on the algorhythmic foundations – how you understand the data and how you can scale it up to a much larger scale – and this approach went on for some time. My initial thought when I heard about big data was to ask ‘is this just a rebranding of massive data?’ but it’s trying to capture something more than that.

"The temptation when you hear ‘big data’ is to focus on ‘big’ and interpret it as meaning something large in structure and volume and that’s certainly the chief way that big data strikes you, but underlying that is the fact that it can denote a large number of other things. It can refer to a lot of the potential of working with this amount of information, it can refer to the different kinds of ideas you can have, it can refer to the fact that, before, we had focussed data sets from a particular application area and you’d look at them in isolation. Now you can start to say that, across society, we have many more data sets being made available to us and so we can try to start to understand phenomena that we couldn’t before by looking at a variety of different data coming from a variety of locations.”

Graham Cormode, Department of Computer Science

4. It addresses global problems

“History, of course, has a lot of data and particularly the field of economic history which I belong to. For me, data is ‘big’ when it addresses global problems; wealth inequality, standards of living and so on. Big data applies very well to global issues.”

Professor Giorgio Riello, Department of History

5. It’s a movement

“Big data is like a digital enlightenment. It’s a movement – globally and culturally. But, whereas science and rationality were, for the enlightenment, the way for human progress, big data is very explicitly about controlling human behaviour. I think the advantages of big data are clearer for the commercial sector; when it comes to social systems, I’m less confident of the advantages. For me, big data is quite frightening; the methods being used to evaluate it are the methods being used to evaluate atoms. Big data is social physics basically, and, for me, it’s missing all the social aspects that make us human and different to atoms.”

Associate Professor Emma Uprichard, Centre For Interdisciplinary Methodologies and Director of the Warwick Q-Step Centre.

January 2015

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