Tag Archives: context

Is Big Data Missing the Big Picture?

27 Apr


When I was defending my graduate thesis a number of years ago, I was asked by one of the faculty in attendance to explain why I had done “x” rather than “y” with my data. I stumbled for a bit until I finally said, somewhat out of frustration at not knowing the right answer, “Because that’s not what I said I’d do.” My statistics professor was also in attendance and as I quickly tried to backtrack from my response piped in, “That’s the right answer.”

As I’ve watched and listened to and read and been a part of so many discussions about data – data sharing, data citation, data management – over the past several years, I often find myself thinking back on that defense and my answer. More, I’ve thought of my professor’s comment; that data is collected, managed, and analyzed according to certain rules that a researcher or graduate student or any data collector decides from the outset. That’s best practice, anyway. And such an understanding always makes me wonder if in our exuberance to claim the importance, the need, the mandates, and the “sky’s the limit” views over data sharing, we don’t forget that.

I really enjoyed the panel that the Medical Library Association put together last week for their webinar, “The Diversity of Data Management: Practical Approaches for Health Sciences Librarianship.” The panelists included two data librarians and one research data specialist; Lisa Federer of the National Institutes of Health Library, Kevin Read from New York University’s Health Sciences Library, and Jacqueline Wirz of Oregon Health & Sciences University, respectively. As a disclosure, I know Lisa, Kevin and Jackie each personally and consider them great colleagues, so I guess I could be a little biased in my opinion, but putting that aside, I do feel that they each have a wealth of experience and knowledge in the topic and it showed in their presentations and dialogue.

Listening to the kind of work and the projects that these data-centric professionals shared, it’s easy and exciting to see the many opportunities that exist for libraries, librarians, and others with an interest in data science. At the same time, I admit that I wince when I sense our “We can do this! Librarians can do anything!” enthusiasm bubble up – as occasionally occurs when we gather together and talk about this topic – because I don’t think it’s true. I do believe that individually, librarians can move into an almost limitless career field, given our basic skills in information collection, retrieval, management, preservation, etc. We are well-positioned in an information age. That said, though, I also believe that (1) there IS a difference between information and data and (2) the skills librarians have as a foundation in terms of information science don’t, in and of themselves, translate directly to the age of big data. (I’m not fan of that descriptor, by the way. I tend to think it was created and is perpetuated by the tech industry and the media, both wishing we believe things are simpler than they ever are.) Some librarians, with a desire and propensity towards the opportunities in data science will find their way there. They’ll seek out the extra skills needed and they’ll identify new places and new roles that they can take on. I feel like I’ve done this myself and I know a good plenty handful of others who’ve done the same. But can we sell it as the next big thing that academic and research libraries need to do? Years later, I still find myself a little skeptical.

Moving beyond the individual, though, I wonder if libraries and other entities within information science, as a whole, don’t have a word of caution to share in the midst of our calls for openness of data. It’s certainly the belief of our profession(s) that access to information is vital for the health of a society on every level. However, in many ways it seems that in our discussions of data, we’ve simply expanded our dedication towards the principal of openness to information to include data, as well. Have we really thought through all that we’re saying when we wave that banner? Can we have a more tempered response and/or approach to the big data bandwagon?

Arguably, there are MANY valid reasons for supporting access in this area; peer review, expanded and more efficient science, reproducibility, transparency, etc. Good things, all. But going back to that lesson that I learned in grad school, it’s important to remember that data is collected, managed, and analyzed in certain ways for a reason; things decided by the original researcher. In other words, data has context. Just like information. And like information, I wonder (and have concern for) what happens to data when it’s taken out of its original context. And I wonder if my profession could perhaps advocate this position, too, along with those of openness and sharing, if nothing more than to raise the collective awareness and consciousness of everyone in this new world. To curb the exuberance just a tad.

I recently started getting my local paper delivered to my home. The real thing. The newsprint newspaper. The one that you spread out on the kitchen table and peruse through, page by page. You know what I’ve realized in taking up this long-lost activity again? When you look at a front page with articles of an earthquake in Nepal, nearby horses attacked by a bear, the hiring practices of a local town’s police force, and gay marriage, you’re forced to think of the world in its bigger context. At the very least, you’re made aware of the fact that there’s a bigger picture to see.

When I think of how information is so bifurcated today, I can’t help but ask if there’s a lesson there that can be applied to data before we jump overboard into the “put it all out there” sea. We take research articles out of the context of journals. We take scientific findings out of the context of science. We take individual experiences out of context of the very experience in which they occur. And of course, the most obvious, we take any and every politician’s words out of context in order to support whatever position we either want or don’t want him/her to support. I don’t know about you, but each and every one of these examples appears as a pretty clear reason to at least think about what can and will happen (already happens) to data if and when it suffers the same fate.

Are there reasons why librarians and information specialists are concerned with big data? Absolutely! I just hope that our concern also takes in the big picture.