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Readers Write: Big Data can't predict the future; Racism of today is more insidious

Letters to the Editor for the September 9, 2013 weekly print issue: 

In trying to understand the effect of the information revolution on society, it is essential to remember the inextricable linkage between data collection and analysis.

It's hard to think that today's racism is "far more insidious" than continual, unprosecuted lynchings, but it is certainly more hidden, subtle, and coded.

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From big data to understanding

The "Age of algorithms" cover story in the Aug. 12 issue offered fascinating anecdotes that illustrate the vast new world of large-scale data collection. What it misses, however, is the key distinction between data and information. Data usually comes in arrays of numbers that measure a huge variety of physical quantities. Information uses data to produce a refined, distilled product that one can understand and put to use. So the revolution that is popularly called "Big Data" has two key parts.

The first is the advent of massive computer storage capabilities. This allows the retention of vast strings of numbers. Just as important is the development of extremely sophisticated software that can analyze, process, and interpret the vast mountains of numbers. Without the second development, just collecting the numbers would be close to useless.

Not understanding this second development – the capacity to analyze data – results in questions phrased like this: "How can power companies harness the power of data to predict which trees will fall on power lines during a storm?" Most scientists would cringe at this description. The data analysis process produces patterns, trends, probabilities – not an explicit prediction of the future. At a more fundamental level, such a prediction is not just hard, it is impossible.

In trying to understand the effect of the information revolution on society, it is essential to remember the inextricable linkage between data collection and analysis.

Racism, then and now

Thank you for the Aug. 19 & 26 cover story, "They have a dream, too," on the miles to go still in the civil rights struggle. It's hard to think that today's racism is "far more insidious" than continual, unprosecuted lynchings, but it is certainly more hidden, subtle, and coded. It seems likely that many politicians who push a "stand your ground" law, a mandatory sentencing law, or a voter suppression law know who the target of such laws is and what color his or her "base" is.


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