The Era of Big Data

The advances of technology have enabled Internet users to create and publish their own content, therefore, increasing the volume of information tremendously. We now face an incredibly large amount of data that is difficult to track.  This new reality lets us wonder about Big Data, the new hot topic in the ICTs forums. Some believe that Big Data will be impacting our lives as much as Web 2.0 and other technological advances. 

Currently, companies and even political campaigns have used big data to better understand their audiences’ opinions and needs. The Obama presidential campaign used data science to figure which people were potential voters, showing up at the polls, and which ones would vote for Obama. This data was retrieved online and many social scientists wonder if the manipulation of big data – access to people’s online purchases, most visited websites and other details – is infringing democracy and the user’s civil rights for privacy.

Obama was definitely successful in his campaign, mainly when it comes to studying online data. A New York Times article written by Zeynep Tufekci, explains in more details the presidential campaign data research led by Jim Messina, where “$100 million was invested in technology, demanded data on everything, measured everything and ran 66,000 computer simulations every day.”

Despite of the worries on whom is having access to big data, sofisticated tools to retrieved relevant information and to filter what is important still lack knowledge capacity. There are not many scientists or specialists in the area; although, more academics are becoming interested in the topic and the future promises high skilled professionals and software enabling better handling of this large data.

Data analysis studies have not only been used to achieve a successful political campaign or target consumers, but also to understand the other way around – the impact that these big companies and political decisions and policies have in our lives. As an example, the ‘Computational Analysis of Public Diplomacy Data’ by Cogburn and Wozniak present an interesting  analysis of all speeches done by three female  US Secretaries of State. Despite of the massive amount of data, computer software was helpful in the data selection process, as traditional data analysis becomes impossible for this type of work nowadays.

Among the findings, the most striking for me was the fact that Women’s rights were not among US’s top foreign policy priorities during Albright’s, Rice’s and Hillary’s terms. Even though the three female secretary of state preached women equality, once analyzing the content of their speeches, women’s rights was far behind top phrases such as human rights (not implying to women’s rights specifically), foreign policy and middle east. One thing to keep in mind, by this example, is that not only the powerful has the right and tools to analyze our preferences by checking our data online, but we also should be empowered to study the way this people analyze us and manipulate their communication to reach their target audiences.

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