Below is Part 2 of the essay/feature "Data Culture" from ARCADE's spring 2015 issue. The essay will release online in installments over the coming weeks. Read Part 1. Subscribe to our e-newsletter and follow us on Facebook and Twitter for notice of future posts.—ARCADE
"Data is on the ascent. In particular, the last decade has seen the dramatic rise of data in society. There is more digital information in the world than ever before, and we create more every day. Along with the exponential increase in computer processing power, the Internet’s explosive growth is fueling this new age of information, making it ever easier to collect and share data. As a result, quantification is infiltrating seemingly all corners of the world. Things that have never been measured before are now being converted into data, including aspects of life as amorphous as our personal relationships.
We are in the midst of a paradigm shift. Data’s rise and the effects of quantification are profoundly impacting our communities and our lives. ..."
Part 2: The Quantification of Society
Four developments in particular characterize our current data-driven climate.
One important development in recent years has been “big data.” The popular, almost catchphrase-like term refers to large and often semi-structured or unstructured datasets. Though difficult to analyze, big data promises insights previously impossible to obtain. In healthcare, it will enable researchers to analyze millions of health records to provide new and more effective treatments for diseases. In education, governments and schools will be able to gain information about the learning abilities of millions of students. Practically every sector stands to benefit from insights gleaned from vast amounts of data.
Big data is made possible by the digitization of information. In 2000, only one-quarter of the world’s information was digital; today only two percent is not. And not only is more of the world’s information digital, there is also more of it overall, as the world’s data doubles every two years. In 2013, the world’s total data was equal to 4.4 zettabytes, or 4.4 trillion gigabytes, according to a study by EMC Digital Universe. By the year 2020, it will be close to 44 zettabytes — 44 trillion gigabytes of data.
Yet big data’s value is not about quantity. It’s about what we can do with it through the use of improved statistical and computational methods. We can learn things from large amounts of information that we can’t from smaller datasets, but making sense of big data requires special skills, or at least the right tools.
With this in mind, Thomas Davenport and D.J. Patil wrote an article in the Harvard Business Review titled “Data Scientist: The Sexiest Job of the 21st Century,” which describes the demand for specialists suitably equipped to harness the power of big data. Furthermore, business intelligence software is quickly gaining popularity, as products and services like Tableau and IBM’s Watson Analytics promise to unlock insights in data without requiring a specialized skillset in data science. Through big data, quantification is becoming more and more ingrained in society, as we strive to measure and analyze anything from the nationwide performance of school children to government efficiency.
The drive towards quantification is also apparent in the emergence of data journalism. Spearheaded by the New York Times and the Guardian, as well as newcomers FiveThirtyEight and Vox, the discipline combines traditional journalism with data analysis. Its objective is to use data and the design of quantitative information to inform the public about important issues, and data journalism is largely responsible for bringing data visualization to a mainstream audience.
Open data — datasets that are free to use, from government to crowdsourced information — has been instrumental in advancing data journalism. In the 2013 Wired article “How the Global Open Data Movement Is Transforming Journalism,” Jeanne Bourgault of Internews writes that the success of early data journalism projects is helping to shift the media’s tone from “he-said, she-said sound bites to solid data sources.” An example she cites is Data Dredger, a platform that allows Kenyan journalists to download ready-to-use data and accompanying visualizations for their stories. The increase of data visualization in the media is fueling our desire for quantification by giving us information from which we may draw our own conclusions.
Quantification has also permeated our interpersonal relationships. As Shea Bennett reports for Adweek, over 67 percent of Americans are now active on at least one social network, and over 58 percent use Facebook. Social media has become so pervasive that “likes” and “retweets” are a form of social currency, and Facebook friends and Twitter followers are new standards for popularity. These metrics have become a primary way by which we measure the worth of our friendships and social lives. And as social media plays an increasingly central role in our culture, its use is generating terabytes upon terabytes of unstructured data that, while challenging to analyze, promises fundamentally new insights for entire industries.
THE QUANTIFIED SELF
Perhaps one of the most widespread examples of quantification is the “Quantified Self,” a movement based on self-tracking that adheres to the motto “self-knowledge through numbers.” In addition to health and wellness, the Quantified Self also includes areas such as productivity and education. Although the movement was officially founded in 2007 by Kevin Kelly (creator of Wired) and journalist Gary Wolf, self-tracking or “life-logging” began as early as the 1970s. However, the field only started to gain mainstream acceptance once computing technology had progressed far enough to enable commercially viable, wearable devices supported by online services, which could store and visualize personal data.
From counting steps to measuring our sleep patterns, products such as FitBit, Nike FuelBand and more claim to help us improve our health by tracking our behaviors and giving us strategies for achieving better outcomes. Visualizing progress is a motivating factor for self-trackers, and an increased awareness of one’s behaviors can be the first step towards positive change. In addition, the new Apple Watch promises to continue the widespread adoption of wearable technology; wearables are one of the most vivid examples of how quantification is infiltrating society from the ground up. Quantification promises to help us control aspects of our lives that may have previously seemed elusive.
Part 3, "The Cost of Data," will release 19 May 2015:
"It is hard to recall any other time in history when we have been this infatuated with information and numbers. But with all the ways we capture and access new troves of data, are we becoming more knowledgeable? Or are we just processing more noninformation in search of insights that are increasingly hard to come by? Does data help us connect more with who we are as a society, or is it pulling us further apart?
While we may exuberantly welcome data’s rise for the unprecedented possibilities it brings, our new data-fueled culture is also causing psychological discomfort and societal friction. In many respects, information technology is advancing faster than society can keep up."
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