It’s said that in the last two years, more data has been created than all the data that ever was created before that time. And that in two years hence, we’ll be able to say the same thing. Gary King, the head of the Institute for Quantitative Social Science at Harvard University, isn’t certain those statements are exactly true, but certain they are true in essence. And he’s even more certain that the growth in the amount of data isn’t why big data is changing the world.
As he tells interviewer Dave Edmonds in this Social Science Bites podcast, roughly 650 million social media messages will go out today. So to someone trying to make statements about what those messages contain, he posited, would having 750 million messages make anything better? “Having bigger data,” King says, “only makes things more difficult.”
Or to be blunter, “The data itself isn’t likely to be particularly useful; the question is whether you can make it useful.” Which leads to King’s real passion: the analysis of big data. It’s not the ‘big’ or the ‘data’ that really turns the screw; it’s the analysis.
In this conversation, King, uses text analysis as an example of this big data analysis. He notes that some of the tools that text analysis uses are “mathematically similar” to another project he worked on, trying to determine health priorities in the third world by figuring out what’s killing people there. In both cases, the individual, whether someone with a disease or someone with a viral tweet, is less important than the trend.
That, explains King, spotlights the difference between computer scientists’ goals and social scientists’ goals: “We only care about what everybody’s saying.” He then talks about work examining social media and censorship in China. While the work clearly falls into an area that King, a political scientist, would be interested in, the genesis was actually as a test case for the limitations of the text analysis program. But it nonetheless gave useful insight into both how the Chinse government censors material, and why.
King is the Albert J. Weatherhead III University Professor at Harvard. He’s been elected a fellow or eight honorary societies, including the National Academy of Science, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the American Academy of Political and Social Science. King also has an entrepreneurial bent – he mentions the company Crimson Hexagon that was spun out of the text analysis work during this interview – and has founded or invented technology for companies like Learning Catalytics and Perusall.
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