Social Science blog

Exploring Social Science at the British Library

05 November 2013

BSA: Big Data Challenge at the British Library

Asher Rospigliosi, Brighton Business School, writes:

The British Sociology Association hosted a Presidential event, on the Big Data Challenge at the British Library on Friday the 30th October. Upward of 150 interested parties arrived to hear presentations, ask questions discuss and debate the changing nature of  social science research and the evaluation of policy and practice.

The day comprised of four plenary sessions. Each session had a panel of  invited speakers presenting, followed by a discussion. Each considered different aspect of the impact of Big Data on the social sciences or policy, and each had a very different tone. It rapidly became apparent that among many other challenges, a major theme was debate on whether big data as by product of user activities (i.e. not generated as the result of primary enquiry) was to be welcomed or not.

At the heart of this debate on whether to use data generated by use of social media and other digital droppings, were concerns about assumptions of representativeness, ownership of the data, access to the data and informed user consent.


Above: Word Cloud of BSA: Big Data Challenge at the British Library by Digital Coeliac (Warwick University). Reproduced here with kind permission of Sam Martin.

The opening sessions characterised these contrasting considerations. BSA President John Holmwood welcomed delegates, but warned that Big Data risks offering another dream of unifying the Social Science around a behavioural model, while driving our own actions, as academics, for example, through the impact of the National Student Satisfaction Survey.

If this was a mixed welcome to big data, the next speakers were so far apart in their approach and tone as to polarise the audience. Evelyn Ruppert (Goldsmiths) announced her new SAGE journal, Big Data & Society: Critical Interdisciplinary Inquiries, to be launched in 2014. Evelyn offered a highly critical take on Big Data with consideration of the way that business sets many of the questions, and the need for sociologist and anthropologists to provide  the “why?” Ken Benoit (LSE) spoke earnestly about the necessity of doing, if we are to understand and use Big Data. Ken showed examples of technical tools, which he suggested would be needed by researchers in the field. He made a really strong case for introducing technical education much earlier. Then Emma Uprichard (University of Warwick) countered with a passionate warning that engaging with Big Data highlights the splintered nature of the field of sociology. In engaging we are forced to ask “who are we doing this for, and why?”

Lively discussion from the audience drew out these themes, with impassioned calls for sociology to be a force for radical change, countered by John McInnes of Edinburgh welcoming social insight through analysis of “feral data”!

Highlights from other sessions included an enthusiastic Emer Colman (dsrptn), an influential advocate of Open Data and Digital Government and Paul Martin (University of Sheffield) with a sobering insight into big health data and the enormous potential (commercial) value to the  NHS.

Throughout the day a parallel discussion and sharing of views was tweeted, by delegates and those beyond the library, using #BigDataBL.

Digital Coeliac (Warwick University) has generated some insightful visualisations after the event.

Paola Tubaro (University of Greenwich) has written an interesting analysis of the Big Data Challenge, drawing on these visualisations.

SMALLER 2 influencermoth

Above: Influencer Moth: Social Reach vs. Activity for #BigDataBL tweets by Digital Coeliac (Warwick University). Reproduced here with kind permission of Sam Martin. (See Sam Martin's Digital Coeliac blog for a better resolution image)

About the author

Asher Rospigliosi is senior lecture in e-business, digital marketing and business information systems at Brighton Business School. His research interests centre on graduate employability and e-learning. Away from the internet Asher has been fire-keeper at the Glastonbury Festival tipi field for many years, walks his dogs and blogs when he “has a thought”!


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