Big Data as an interdisciplinary imperative

In late September I spent two days representing Lund University at a U21 workshop in Edinburgh. We were a mix of 60 or so computer scientists, biologists and social scientists from all over the world, lumped together under the theme “Big Data at the heart of 21st Century research”.

img_2124Much of my scientific curiosity about Big Data regards what it enables, also how it can be problematised in terms of ethical questions, what the commercialisation and commodification of individuals private data means when it is retained, analysed and handled by corporate interests.

Here are a two brief thoughts that were spurred by the workshop.

  • The workshop as a whole strongly indicated the need for more interdisciplinary work when it comes to the increasing impact of big data, e.g. the enabling of joint work between data sciences as well as the types pf disciplines that have worked with large amounts of data in a more controlled sense, such as life sciences, genome research and for example astronomy, but also – given the datafication of social life – the social sciences and the humanities. The latter is meeting somewhat of an empirical revolution in terms of that our private lives are increasingly logged and measured in terms of smartphones, social media and digital tools in our everyday lives. An empirical revolution that needs to be theorised. The need for academic organisations to enable such interdisciplinary work is thereby increasing. Current disciplinary structures and academic organisational apparatus tend not to be in line with this, it seems, and at worst case even working against it.
  • There is a growing separation between private and public data, i.e. the data that academic research is able to use for studies and analyses and the vast amounts of data that private actors such as Google, Facebook, less public data brokers as well as device producers such as Apple holds. This is particularly relevant for the social data mentioned in the point above, relevant for much of our increasingly digitally mediated lives, with cultural, social, political relevance, and more. Much of what can be studied in and about contemporary and future societies will depend on the privately held data.

 

/Stefan Larsson, Lund University Internet Institute.

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