Researchers are rightly excited about the possibilities offered by the availability of enormous amounts of computerized data. But there’s reason to stand back for a minute to consider what exactly this treasure trove of information really offers. Ethnographers like me use a cross-cultural approach when we collect our data because family, marriage and household mean different things in different contexts. This approach informs how I think about big data.
We’ve all heard the joke about the drunk who is asked why he is searching for his lost wallet under the streetlight, rather than where he thinks he dropped it. “Because the light is better here,” he said.
This “streetlight effect” is the tendency of researchers to study what is easy to study. I use this story in my course on Research Design and Ethnographic Methods to explain why so much research on disparities in educational outcomes is done in classrooms and not in students’ homes. Children are much easier to study at school than in their homes, even though many studies show that knowing what happens outside the classroom is important. Nevertheless, schools will continue to be the focus of most research because they generate big data and homes don’t.
The streetlight effect is one factor that prevents big data studies from being useful in the real world – especially studies analyzing easily available user-generated data from the Internet. Researchers assume that this data offers a window into reality. It doesn’t necessarily.
Looking at WEIRDOs
Based on the number of tweets following Hurricane Sandy, for example, it might seem as if the storm hit Manhattan the hardest, not the New Jersey shore. Another example: the since-retired Google Flu Trends, which in 2013 tracked online searches relating to flu symptoms to predict doctor visits, but gave estimates twice as high as reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Without checking facts on the ground, researchers may fool themselves into thinking that their big data models accurately represent the world they aim to study.
The problem is similar to the “WEIRD” issue in many research studies. Harvard professor Joseph Henrich and colleagues have shown that findings based on research conducted with undergraduates at American universities – whom they describe as “some of the most psychologically unusual people on Earth” – apply only to that population and cannot be used to make any claims about other human populations, including other Americans. Unlike the typical research subject in psychology studies, they argue, most people in the world are not from Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic societies, i.e., WEIRD.
Twitter users are also atypical compared with the rest of humanity, giving rise to what our postdoctoral researcher Sarah Laborde has dubbed the “WEIRDO” problem of data analytics: most people are not Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic and Online.
Context is critical
Understanding the differences between the vast majority of humanity and that small subset of people whose activities are captured in big data sets is critical to correct analysis of the data. Considering the context and meaning of data – not just the data itself – is a key feature of ethnographic research, argues Michael Agar, who has written extensively about how ethnographers come to understand the world….(https://theconversation.com/big-datas-streetlight-effect-where-and-how-we-look-affects-what-we-see-58122More)”