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Half of technology leaders are bullish on big data

Vadym Drobot/

About half of technology experts think the gathering and analysis of troves of big data will produce a “huge positive” for society, while about 40 percent think it will produce a “big negative,” a study released Friday by the Pew Internet and American Life Project found.

Big data generally refers to large amounts of unstructured information that can’t be neatly compressed into a spreadsheet, such as Global Positioning System signals from cellphones, collections of tweets on a particular topic, satellite video of traffic patterns, or pulses from the Large Hadron Collider.

New tools to analyze that information promise to aid data-driven analyses of everything from consumer habits to smart infrastructure planning to the big-bang theory.

The government is investing $200 million in new research and development related to the mining, processing and storage of big data, spurred by a June 2011 report from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, which found a gap in the private sector's investment in basic big data research and development.

Advances in big data will produce a more predictable economy, more nuanced health care diagnoses and smarter business decisions, technology leaders who are optimistic about big data told Pew researchers.

“Demonizing data, big or small, is demonizing knowledge and that is never wise,” Internet pundit Jeff Jarvis said.

Some skeptics told Pew they were concerned most big data is in the hands of governments and corporations along with the tools to analyze it. That could result in people’s daily lives being commoditized rather than improved, they said.

“If big data could be used primarily for social benefit, rather than the pursuit of profit [and the social-control systems that support that effort], then I could ‘sign on,’ ” said Oscar Gandy, communications theorist and retired University of Pennsylvania communications professor.

Other skeptics worried conclusions drawn from big data would too often be erroneous and based on poor assumptions about causation.

“A lot of big data today is biased and missing context,” said Dan Ness, a research analyst at MetaFacts, a technology market research firm.

Pew partnered on the study with Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center.

(Image via Vadym Drobot/

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