The Possibilities of Big Data

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A scale model of Chicago at the Big Data exhibit

Before going to this exhibit, I had never heard of the term Big Data or knew anything about what it meant. It is interesting that when I first heard the term, I assumed it must be something bad or corrupt. So many terms like “big business” and “big agriculture” are used negatively. At first, I was expecting to see something which was critical of how data was being collected or used. I thought it would involve people or corporations exploiting personal data for profits, something Facebook has been routinely scrutinized for doing. As Dannah Boyd points out, technology tends to be in the hands of corporations seeking to maximize profits. I was definetly surprised when I learned that the exhibit showcased the possibilities of Big Data to improve city life for everyone. Of course when I first began exploring the exhibit, I felt alarmed by how much data is really stored and collected for use by others. We tend to think of the messages we send and what we do on our new media devices as being confined to our screens and those of the people we communicate with.

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Some examples of our new media usage which are collected as data


Seeing this graphic especially made me realize how so much of what I think is just pointless information that just floats into cyberspace is actually something valuable which is organized and stored. I would have never believed that someone’s tweets about long commutes or uncleared roads could actually result in action taken to resolve those problems. There is definitely an amount of creepiness associated with your posts on social media being seen by someone other than who it was intended for. In the case of the article I linked earlier, we can easily imagine how having Facebook employees reading your personal messages for advertising purposes would be invasive and unwanted. But what if your data is being read for the purpose of improving life for you and everyone? Is it still an invasion of privacy or is it worth it in order to build a better city?

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This display discussed buildings in Chicago which play a role in Big Data and digital networks

I was also intrigued by how the seemingly invisible data we produce is still grounded in the physical world as shown by this display: The quote “It’s where the internet happens” is particularly telling. New media is not entirely removed from its surroundings and the physical world. You never think of data really traveling through the physical world, and the fact that it can be tracked to a single building in the city is very eye opening. It also can be alarming to remember that what we send out on new media goes through intermediaries and not directly to a source. Again, the sense of a third party being involved in your interactions can be off putting. But in seeing this part of the exhibit, I felt more intrigue than alarm. I found it amazing how architecture and technology are beginning to intersect. In next week’s reading, William J. Mitchell writes that architecture “…serves as the constructed ground for encountering and extracting meaning from…digital information through global networks.” The physical city of Chicago and its buildings and neighborhoods support a continuous flow of data. It is almost a layer of the city itself. It makes sense that this data which the city is filled with should go back to improving that very city.
Big Data obviously offers both utopian and dystopian possibilities. On one hand, it could lead to corporate exploitation or even government surveillance. On the other hand, it could make our lives more convenient and even improve society for many people. After leaving the exhibit, I was fascinated by all the possibilities of Big Data for the city of Chicago, but still somewhat wary of the negatives ways data is being used. Do you think Big Data is more likely to create a utopian or dystopian reality?​
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