The relevancy of data

Let’s say you didn’t know the answer to a given question. What would your first instinct be? If you’re anything like me, you’d fire up your laptop, head straight to the ever-faithful Google search bar, bang in some key words and voilà, happily receive your answer. But how did that information get there and how do you know that it’s reliable? And if the whole society is doing the same, how do data and media shape our societal, social and personal contexts?

In today’s networked society, unprecedented amounts of data are so readily available and are often analysed and utilised for their immense potential to become a powerful source of information that will influence the public in ways that we previously may never have imagined. Retailers and advertisers can manipulate their understanding of consumer behaviours to exercise much greater influence (remember that Forbes article ‘How Target Figured Out A Teen Girl Was Pregnant Before Her Father Did‘?) , educational institutions can be graded (My School, anyone?), and the futility of war is quantifiable in cold, hard numbers (for example, the Iraq Body Count) (Quilty-Harper 2010). However when the media and our society are so willingly engaging with the data available and even viewing the use of data as common best practice (see The Guardian’s Datablog) or as a measure our worthiness to receive tertiary education (e.g. the HSC and the ATAR cut-off for uni), the independence of such data becomes a vital element to consider in the overall social assemblage that is constructed by such data-based media and communications.

We are constantly surrounded by data. Flickr Creative Commons  ||  Photo credit: Hsing Wei

We are constantly surrounded by data.
Flickr Creative Commons || Photo credit: Hsing Wei

As per Latour’s Actor-Network Theory (2005), all actants – including the data available; the methodology taken to receive that data; the choice of analysis; and the mediation of said-data – play an equal role in shaping our understanding of the world around us, including our perception of oneself. While I appreciate a good set of data and the continuous strive toward what Edwards (2010) would call the ‘Global Knowledge Infrastructure’ as much as anyone else, I feel that our often unassuming acceptance – or is it ignorance?-  that all data is good and correct data places an unequal agency at the hands of the media and communication technologies. With reference to Foucault’s notion of power/knowledge (1980), I feel that our docile acceptance with the reality as it is presented to us demonstrates our society’s deeply-embedded and largely unbalanced sense of security in data, allowing the media and communication technologies to dictate which data will become ‘important’; often forgetting that economic reality can also create or impact data (for example, think tanks and their specialist reports which can have a skewed bias toward the institution’s goals). Add to this the very nature of data mining/collecting and the penchant to use non-human actants to achieve and build the database, and data friction (Edwards 2010) is almost unavoidable.

However I don’t believe that data is inherently a bad thing. Instead, I think that given the right measures, data is an incredibly powerful tool that can be utilised to pinpoint and eliminate or verify a proposed ‘truth’ or any perception we hold of ‘the real’, hence engineering better – or should I say more productive – results for almost all aspects of life. In my upcoming research report I hope to track an issue through the method of data mining, though I’m not quite sure of the topic just yet. It will be interesting to note how a data-driven approach can yield different qualitative and quantitative results, paying special attention to data friction.

EDIT: The below was added on 12 May 2013.

On 4 May 2013, I attended TEDxSydney and saw a fantastic talk by Simon Jackson (Professor of Political Science and Statistics at Stanford University) on the use of data and ‘The Demographic Data Revolution’; how we can use data to enhance, rather than diminish, democracy . He was involved in the 2012 U.S. election cycle and powered the Pollster section on Huffington Post, achieving a perfect set of predictions of the election outcome in each state. The video is below.

References

Edwards, P. N. 2010, ‘Introduction’ in A Vast Machine: Computer Models, Climate Data, and the Politics of Global Warming, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, pp.xiii-xvii.

Foucault, M. 1980, Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977, Pantheon, New York, NY.

Jackson, S. 2013, ‘The Democracy Data Revolution’, TEDxSydney, a public talk, 4 May, viewed 12 May 2013, <http://youtu.be/INf5u29n-5Q>

Latour, B. 2005, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory, OUP Oxford, Oxford, UK.

The Guardian 2013, Datablog, The Guardian, UK, viewed 15 April 2013, <http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog>

Quilty-Harper, C. 2010, ’10 ways data is changing how we live’, The Telegraph, August 25, viewed 15 April 2013, <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/7963311/10-ways-data-is-changing-how-we-live.html>

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