Bringing Depth to Big Data
Everyone is talking about big data these days, and for good reason. In recent years, the digital realm has grown exponentially, from megabytes to terabytes to zettabytes, with no end in sight. Our massive digital footprint is transforming every industry and discipline, from technology and agriculture to education and healthcare.
While these conversations often deal with figures and formulas, it’s all just numbers without the human equation. That’s where the liberal arts come in.
Together with scientists from across the University of Minnesota, CLA geographers, journalists, historians, and many others are leading the way in data-driven research. Whether it’s translating ancient documents or building historical population databases, these researchers are drawing on data for all it’s worth.
At the same time, they are proceeding with caution.
“We’re ceding a lot of decisionmaking authority to these algorithms—and a lot of them aren’t even designed by human beings,” says Steve Manson, professor and associate dean for research and graduate programs in the College of Liberal Arts. “It’s critical for there to be a liberal arts perspective on how the algorithms are being used and how they affect people.”
CLA is also interested in understanding the gaps, says Manson. “If everyone starts using big data to understand the world, what does that mean for parts of the world for which we don’t have a lot of data? Do they get left behind?”
Along with addressing tough questions, CLA experts are adding depth and context to the data. For example, computer scientists are using analytics to explore the history of the English language. But, as Manson notes, those scientists must work with English literature experts to understand how certain words have changed over time.
When Manson joined the University in 2002, most datasets could live on a single computer. “Now you need supercomputing and cloud computing to make sense of everything,” he says. “But I’m so impressed with how our faculty have led the way on the changes.”
We talked with three CLA researchers who have fully embraced the big data revolution.
Eric Shook uses big data to help improve how society responds to risks.
Statistician Ansu Chatterjee uses big data to study the impact of climate extremes on societies. Through the lens of big data, Chatterjee is studying this “long chain in which climate plays a part.”
Ore Koren uses big data to study the micro-dynamics of violence and civil war. According to his research, climate extremes and the resulting food insecurity intensify already difficult political situations.