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Dr. Brian Lowe, SUNY Oneonta – Analyzing "Big Data"

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Brian Lowe of the State University of New York Oneonta explains why "Big Data" is becoming a focus of academic inquiry. 

Brian Lowe is an associate professor of sociology at the State University of New York Oneonta where his research and teaching interests include sociological theories, animal and society, cultural and comparative-historical sociology and spectacular conflicts. His work has appeared in a number of peer-reviewed journals and in 2006 he published, Emerging Moral Vocabularies: The Creation and Establishment of New Forms of Moral and Ethical Meanings. He earned his Ph.D. at the University of Virginia.

Dr. Brian Lowe – Analyzing "Big Data"

Where do tweets go? What about an email, once you've sent it? Americans have been jolted into seriously considering questions like these by the recent disclosures from NSA contractor Edward Snowden. Existence of a massive federal surveillance program that targeted personal communication between millions of Americans has renewed debate about the balance between Americans' right to privacy and our government's gathering of “intelligence” to defend against potential threats.

What these conversations often fail to address is that many other organizations—from political groups to corporations to nonprofits—are also watching us. Every day. Every time you do a Google search, shop online, swipe a credit card or use a smartphone, you contribute to what's become known as “Big Data.” This is illustrated in Charles Duhigg’s famous example, - based on a teenage girl’s recent purchase history, her local Target store began mailing her promotional coupons for baby products, effectively perceiving her pregnancy well before her parents did. As sociologist David Lyon has noted, the gathering and use of data for “social sorting” and other purposes is older than Christianity, but it has accelerated over the last decade.

“Big Data” ceaselessly accumulates in volume and variety. It also is becoming big business as retailers, social movement organizations, and advertisers increasingly use it to research present and potential future trends. How education taps into Big Data is a new and emerging field. Questions of morality, public opinion, popular culture, and risk are all ripe for analysis in the undergraduate classroom. Our team of sociologists, political scientists, philosophers and information technologists is interested in “Big Data” - not only for what can be gleaned from analysis on such a large scale, but also to understand what it means to society's responsibilities to people as individuals. We understand that as members of an electronically connected society our actions are being recorded. However, we are far from any societal consensus about how much data should be gatherd, by whom, for what purposes, and who or what decides these questions.

Production support for the Academic Minute comes from Newman’s Own, giving all profits to charity and pursuing the common good for over 30 years, and from Mount Holyoke College.

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