Meeting of the Minds: Discussion on Data-Driven Societies

A group of academics, business executives and journalists recently gathered at the MIT Media Lab to discuss the concept of Data-Driven Societies. Alex Pentland, a computational social scientist at the Media Lab and a leading mind in the area of Big Data, hosted the meeting and discussed how increasing amounts of important information are becoming readily available on vast scales and are often all about consumer behavior.

“For example, he cites location data from cellphones and evermore consumption data as people increasingly use credit cards for even the smallest purchases. He distinguishes this behavioral data from less-telling data — about people’s beliefs like Facebook communications or Google searches,” writes The New York Times.

According to Pentland, this sort of “fine-grained behavioral data” allows for a potential shift in how we think of society and how society is governed. Now, “it becomes possible to track social phenomena down to the individual level and the social and economic connections among individuals,” which allows for the detection of what he calls “micro-patterns.”

There are already some examples of how this works in every day life. “Reed Hundt, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission in the Clinton administration, observed at the meeting that Big Data played a major role in the last election — a reference to the Obama campaign’s deft use of data analysis to identify potential Obama voters and encourage them to cast their ballots,” notes the article.

As one person at the MIT talk noted, “information over time wins out.” The New York Times expands on that, writing: “that is, data will change attitudes and policy, combating bias and causing policy-making to be more of a science. To data optimists, then, the endless political squabbling and stalemate in Washington points to all the room there is for improvement.”