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In his article Using Metadata to Find Paul Revere, Duke University sociologist Kieran Healy takes a time machine back to 1776 to show how powerful the collection of impersonal data can be.

Applying 21st century metadata analysis techniques to actual data from 1776, Healy shows how much there is to be garnered from impersonal data--that is, not your health records or the content of your phone conversations, but just your membership in various groups--your network position. The analysis shows that metadata, had they but known how to use it, would have led the British crown to a valid conclusion: keep an eye on that silversmith, Paul Revere. Alternatively, if Revere had had the same information, he could certainly have altered his actions to avoid being detected.

(By choosing this particular example, Healy lets the obvious reality that one nation's terrorist is the other nation's hero just hang out there.)

Healy concludes this way:

...in addition to the possibilities for finding something interesting, there may also be the prospect of discovering suggestive but ultimately incorrect or misleading patterns. But I feel this problem would surely be greatly ameliorated by more and better metadata. (Emphasis mine.)

I believe that there's more good than evil in technology, but not by much. Big data does need watchdogging, transparency, and meaningful legislation, but I tend to the view that more data, more publicness, more connectedness and more openness (by individuals and by their governments) is better.

Civilization has never successfully legislated the permanent reversal or banning of a new technology (the jury's still out on nuclear arms), and big data is here to stay. It seems to me that we'd be better off putting our massive brainpower into "greatly ameliorating" its known evils and augmenting its known benefits, than trying to stop it.

Crossposted from Dreamwidth, where there are comment count unavailable comments.


( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
Jun. 12th, 2013 12:27 pm (UTC)
Huh! That's so interesting!!
( 1 comment — Leave a comment )



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