Using Big Data to Ask Big Questions

Chase Davis in the SOURCE: “First, let’s dispense with the buzzwords. Big Data isn’t what you think it is: Every federal campaign contribution over the last 30-plus years amounts to several tens of millions of records. That’s not Big. Neither is a dataset of 50 million Medicare records. Or even 260 gigabytes of files related to offshore tax havens—at least not when Google counts its data in exabytes. No, the stuff we analyze in pursuit of journalism and app-building is downright tiny by comparison.
But you know what? That’s ok. Because while super-smart Silicon Valley PhDs are busy helping Facebook crunch through petabytes of user data, they’re also throwing off intellectual exhaust that we can benefit from in the journalism and civic data communities. Most notably: the ability to ask Big Questions.
Most of us who analyze public data for fun and profit are familiar with small questions. They’re focused, incisive, and often have the kind of black-and-white, definitive answers that end up in news stories: How much money did Barack Obama raise in 2012? Is the murder rate in my town going up or down?
Big Questions, on the other hand, are speculative, exploratory, and systemic. As the name implies, they are also answered at scale: Rather than distilling a small slice of a dataset into a concrete answer, Big Questions look at entire datasets and reveal small questions you wouldn’t have thought to ask.
Can we track individual campaign donor behavior over decades, and what does that tell us about their influence in politics? Which neighborhoods in my city are experiencing spikes in crime this week, and are police changing patrols accordingly?
Or, by way of example, how often do interest groups propose cookie-cutter bills in state legislatures?

Looking at Legislation

Even if you don’t follow politics, you probably won’t be shocked to learn that lawmakers don’t always write their own bills. In fact, interest groups sometimes write them word-for-word.
Sometimes those groups even try to push their bills in multiple states. The conservative American Legislative Exchange Council has gotten some press, but liberal groups, social and business interests, and even sororities and fraternities have done it too.
On its face, something about elected officials signing their names to cookie-cutter bills runs head-first against people’s ideal of deliberative Democracy—hence, it tends to make news. Those can be great stories, but they’re often limited in scope to a particular bill, politician, or interest group. They’re based on small questions.
Data science lets us expand our scope. Rather than focusing on one bill, or one interest group, or one state, why not ask: How many model bills were introduced in all 50 states, period, by anyone, during the last legislative session? No matter what they’re about. No matter who introduced them. No matter where they were introduced.
Now that’s a Big Question. And with some basic data science, it’s not particularly hard to answer—at least at a superficial level.

Analyze All the Things!

Just for kicks, I tried building a system to answer this question earlier this year. It was intended as an example, so I tried to choose methods that would make intuitive sense. But it also makes liberal use of techniques applied often to Big Data analysis: k-means clustering, matrices, graphs, and the like.
If you want to follow along, the code is here….
To make exploration a little easier, my code represents similar bills in graph space, shown at the top of this article. Each dot (known as a node) represents a bill. And a line connecting two bills (known as an edge) means they were sufficiently similar, according to my criteria (a cosine similarity of 0.75 or above). Thrown into a visualization software like Gephi, it’s easy to click around the clusters and see what pops out. So what do we find?
There are 375 clusters in total. Because of the limitations of our data, many of them represent vague, subject-specific bills that just happen to have similar titles even though the legislation itself is probably very different (think things like “Budget Bill” and “Campaign Finance Reform”). This is where having full bill text would come handy.
But mixed in with those bills are a handful of interesting nuggets. Several bills that appear to be modeled after legislation by the National Conference of Insurance Legislators appear in multiple states, among them: a bill related to limited lines travel insurance; another related to unclaimed insurance benefits; and one related to certificates of insurance.”