Wednesday, 24 April, 2013

In the May/June issue of Foreign Affairs, Kenneth Neil Cukier and Viktor Mayer-Schoenberger look at how big data is changing the way we think about the world. They coin the term “datafication” to describe the transformation of things into a numerically quantified format, which is key to the production of big data. Snippet:

“Datafication is not the same as digitization, which takes analog content — books, films, photographs — and converts it into digital information, a sequence of ones and zeros that computers can read. Datafication is a far broader activity: taking all aspects of life and turning them into data. Google’s augmented-reality glasses datafy the gaze. Twitter datafies stray thoughts. LinkedIn datafies professional networks.

Once we datafy things, we can transform their purpose and turn the information into new forms of value. For example, IBM was granted a U.S. patent in 2012 for ‘securing premises using surface-based computing technology’ — a technical way of describing a touch-sensitive floor covering, somewhat like a giant smartphone screen. Datafying the floor can open up all kinds of possibilities. The floor could be able to identify the objects on it, so that it might know to turn on lights in a room or open doors when a person entered. Moreover, it might identify individuals by their weight or by the way they stand and walk. It could tell if someone fell and did not get back up, an important feature for the elderly. Retailers could track the flow of customers through their stores.”

For a less-rosy view of all this, check out what Nassim N. Taleb has to say in Beware the Big Errors of Big Data. Bottom line: “I am not saying here that there is no information in big data. There is plenty of information. The problem — the central issue — is that the needle comes in an increasingly larger haystack.”

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