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Tag Archive for: big data

July 14, 2020
14 Jul 2020

Big Data and Evaluation

In the latest issue of the American Journal of Evaluation (Vol 41, No.2, June 2020) Robert Picciotto argues that the time has arrived for evaluation to make use of Big Data. In “Evaluation and the Big Data Challenge,” Picciotto observes that evaluators, although not yet well versed in Big Data’s use, should nonetheless actively engage Big Data, which is data composed of large data sets that are too large and complex for traditional data processing tools and that imply just-in-time information for decision-making, continuous storage and processing, and the extensive use of algorithms. The scale and seeming availability of Big Data, coupled with exponentially growing computer power, Picciotto tells us, increasingly makes the use of such data more attractive for evaluators. Big Data makes it possible for evaluators to identify patterns and to gain insights that arise from large data sets, insights that can’t be secured though limited and costly access to traditional data. Additionally, Big Data, if handled correctly, may improve the quality of evaluation. It may even allow evaluators to more effectively wrestle with the persistently thorny problem of discerning causality in complex social systems.

While Big Data offers a range of new opportunities to evaluators, Big Data (and big tech that privately owns and deploys this data) is not without its challenges and drawbacks. Governments, corporations, and interest groups are increasingly reliant on Big Data to manipulate public opinion, shape consumer behavior though predatory advertising, and in some cases to manipulatively intervene in the civic and political lives of nations. (See our previous article, “Everybody Lies”) Picciotto acknowledges the often pernicious uses of private data, and points to the lamentably under-regulated use of Big Data to monitor and influence the behavior of citizens and consumers. He also notes that the algorithms now used to analyze the volumes of data are neither objective nor universally accurate. Despite these substantial challenges, Picciotto—somewhat sanguinely I think—believes that evaluators and greater governmental regulation of big tech may ameliorate some of the more egregious dimensions and uses of Big Data. “Big Data has let lose a host of social threats: oppressive surveillance, loss of privacy, reduced autonomy, digital addiction, spread of disinformation, social polarization, and so on.” Whether evaluators and the public are capable of taming an enterprise that is now overarchingly global, under-regulated, ethically questionable, and resistant to national constraints, will need to be seen.


“Evaluation and the Big Data Challenge,” Robert Picciotto, American Journal of Evaluation pp.166-181. (Vol 41, No.2, June 2020)

“Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are,” (Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, Dey St., 2017)

“What Is Big Data?” Lisa Arthur, Forbes, Aug 15, 2013

“What is Big Data?” Bernard Marr

“Ranking, Rating, and Measuring Everything”

The Metric Society: On the Quantification of the Social, (Polity, 2019)

May 8, 2018
08 May 2018

Transparent as a Jellyfish? Why Privacy is Important

Recent revelations about Facebook and Cambridge Analytica’s use of personal data have raised serious concerns about internet privacy. It would appear that we inhabit a world in which privacy is increasingly under assault—not just from leering governments, but also from panoptic corporations.

Although the right to privacy in the US is not explicitly protected by the Constitution, constitutional amendments and case law have provided some protections to what has become a foundational assumption of American citizens. The “right to privacy” (what Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandis once called “the right to be left alone,”) is a widely held value, both in the U.S. and throughout the world. But why is privacy important?

In “Ten Reasons Why Privacy Matters” Danial Solove, Professor of Law at George Washington University Law School, lists ten important reasons including: limiting the power of government and corporations over individuals; the need to establish important social boundaries; creating trust; and as a precondition for freedom of speech and thought. Solove also notes, “Privacy enables people to manage their reputations. How we are judged by others affects our opportunities, friendships, and overall well-being.”

Julie E. Cohen, of Georgetown argues that privacy is not just a protection, but an irreducible environment in which individuals are free to develop who they are and who they will be. “Privacy is shorthand for breathing room to engage in the process of … self-development. What Cohen means is that since life and contexts are always changing, privacy cannot be reductively conceived as one specific type of thing. It is better understood as an important buffer that gives us space to develop an identity that is somewhat separate from the surveillance, judgment, and values of our society and culture.” (See “Why Does Privacy Matter? One Scholar’s Answer” Jathan Sadowski, The Atlantic, Feb 26) In the Harvard Law Review, (“What Privacy Is For” Julie E. Cohen, Harvard Law Review, Vol. 126, 2013) Cohen writes, “Privacy shelters dynamic, emergent subjectivity from the efforts of commercial and government actors to render individuals and communities fixed, transparent, and predictable. It protects the situated practices of boundary management through which self-definition and the capacity for self-reflection develop.”

Cohen’s argument that privacy is a pre-condition for the development of an autonomous and thriving self is a critical and often overlooked point. If individuals are to develop, individuate, and thrive, they need room to do so, without interference or unwanted surveillance. Such conditions are also necessary for the maintenance of individual freedom vs. slavery.  As Orlando Patterson argued in his book,  Freedom Vol.1 Freedom in the Making of Western Culture (Basic Books, 1991) freedom historically developed in the West as a long struggle against chattel slavery.  Slavery, of course, entails the subjugation of the individual/person, and depends upon the thwarting of autonomy. While slavery may not fully eradicate the full and healthy development of the “self,” it may deform and distort that development. Autonomous selves are both the product of and the condition of social freedom.

Privacy, which is crucial to the development of a person’s autonomy and subjectivity, when reduced by surveillance or restrictive interference—either by governments or corporations who gather and sell our private information—may interfere not just with social and political freedom, but with the development and sustenance of the self.  “Transparency” (especially when applied to personal information) may seem like an important feature to those who gather “Big Data,” but it may also represent an intrusion and an attempt to whittle away the environment of privacy that the self depends upon for its full and healthy development. As Cohen observes, “Efforts to repackage pervasive surveillance as innovation — under the moniker “Big Data” — are better understood as efforts to enshrine the methods and values of the modulated society at the heart of our system of knowledge production. In short, privacy incursions harm individuals, but not only individuals. Privacy incursions in the name of progress, innovation, and ordered liberty jeopardize the continuing vitality of the political and intellectual culture that we say we value.” (See “What Privacy Is For” Julie E. Cohen, Harvard Law Review, Vol. 126, 2013)

Privacy is not just important to the protection of individuals from governments and commercial interests, it is also essential for the development of full, autonomous, and healthy selves.


“Ten Reasons Why Privacy Matters” Daniel Solove

“Why Does Privacy Matter? One Scholar’s Answer” Jathan Sadowski, The Atlantic, Feb 26, 2013

“What Privacy Is For” Julie E. Cohen, Harvard Law Review, Vol. 126, 2013

Orlando Patterson argued in his book,  Freedom Vol.1 Freedom in the Making of Western Culture (Basic Books, 1991)

“Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, What You Need to Know as Fallout Widens” Kevin Granville, New York Times, Mar 19, 2018

“I Downloaded the Information that Facebook Has on Me. Yikes” Brian Chen, New York Times, Apr 11, 2018

“Right to Privacy: Constitutional Rights & Privacy Laws” Tim Sharp, Livescience, June 12, 2013

Surveillance Capitalism, Shoshone Zuboff
Listen to “Facebook and the Reign of Surveillance Capitalism” Radio Open Source
Read a review of Surveillance Capitalism

“How to Save Your Privacy from the Internet’s Clutches” Natasha Lomas, Romain Dillet, TC, Apr 14, 2018

April 25, 2018
25 Apr 2018

Everybody Lies

Although the author of Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are, (Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, Dey St., 2017,) hesitates to specify precisely what ‘big data’ is, he is confident that we are living through an era in which there is an explosion in the amount and quality of data—especially internet-imbedded data—that can tell us things about humans that previous data sources and data analysis methods have been unable to reveal. In fact, Stephens-Davidowitz argues in this quick and easy to read book that, “I am now convinced that Google searches are the most important data set ever collected on the human psyche…and I am convinced that new data increasingly available in our digital age will expand our understanding of humankind.”

Stephens-Davidowitz argues that unlike previous, predominately survey-based data, the emergence of big data—primarily data provided by Google and other on-line searches, makes insights into humans’ deepest interests, desires, behaviors, and values much more transparent and accessible.  Whereas traditional survey research has a number of vulnerabilities (e.g., people are not candid, and in fact lie, they provide socially desirable answers, they both exaggerate or underestimate behaviors and characteristics, etc.) analysis of internet data together with the use of new analytical tools (e.g., Google trends), now makes available immensely more accurate information about what people actually think, believe, and fear.

Stephens-Davidowitz illustrates the insights that collection and analysis of internet-based data now make possible. He shows, for example, how analysis of Google searches about race revealed voters’ real (vs. survey-reported) attitudes toward race even in otherwise seemingly liberal precincts. These attitudes—largely hidden from analysts who used traditional kinds of survey methods, made possible the surprising election of a figure like Donald Trump, who mobilized anti-immigrant sentiment and racist allusions to win the 2016 presidential election. “Surveys and conventional wisdom placed modern racism predominantly in the South and mostly among Republicans.  But the places with the highest racist search rates included upstate New York, western Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio, and rural Illinois…” (p. 7) “The Google searches revealed a darkness and hatred among a meaningful number of Americans that pundits for many years missed. Search data revealed that we live in a very different society from the one academics and journalists, relying on polls, thought that we live in. It revealed a nasty, scary, and wider-spread rage that was waiting for a candidate to give voice to.” (p. 12)

Everybody Lies…examines the ways that new methods of analyzing internet data can yield accurate insights about what people are really concerned with and thinking about. In a chapter titled “Digital Truth Serum,” the author surveys a number of topics including gender bias and sexism, America’s Nazi sympathizers, and the underreported rise of child abuse during economic recessions. He repeatedly demonstrates how internet data reveal accurate and often counter-intuitive findings. In one instance, the author shows that, in fact, internet data reveal that we are more likely to interact with someone with opposing political ideas on the internet than in real life, and that in many instances—and counter to what is widely believed—liberals and conservatives often visit and draw upon the same news websites. (It appears that fascist sympathizers and liberals both rely on

Everybody Lies…makes an argument for a ‘revolution’ in social science research. Stephens-Davidowitz believes that the collection and careful analysis of internet-based data promises a much more rigorous and penetrating approach to answering questions about peoples’ genuine attitudes, behaviors, and political dispositions. Along the way to demonstrating the superiority of such research, Stephens-Davidowitz touches on some important, but taboo and previously difficult-to-answer questions: What percentage of American males are gay? Is Freud’s theory of sexual symbols in dreams really accurate? At what age are political attitudes first established?  How racist are most Americans?

Stephens-Davidowitz writes, “Frankly, the overwhelming majority of academics have ignored the data explosion caused by the digital age. The world’s most famous sex researches stick with the tried and true. They ask a few hundred subjects about their desires; they don’t ask sites like PornHub for their data. The world’s most famous linguists analyze individual tests; they largely ignore the patterns revealed in billions of books. The methodologies taught to graduate students in psychology, political science, and sociology have been, for the most part, untouched by the digital revolution. The broad, mostly unexplored terrain opened by the data explosion has been left to a small number of forward-thinking professors, rebellious grad students and hobbyists. That will change.” (p. 274)


Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, Dey St., 2017

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