How Big Data Fall Short without Context

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Over at the New York Times, Nick Bilton writes that the story of Google Flu Trends speaks volumes about the importance of context as we enter a world of big data.

The Google site attempts to track the spread of influenza based on user searches. The problem is, Google’s algorithm looks only at the numbers, not at the context of the search results.

In today’s digitally connected world, data is everywhere: in our phones, search queries, friendships, dating profiles, cars, food, reading habits. Almost everything we touch is part of a larger data set. But the people and companies that interpret the data may fail to apply background and outside conditions to the numbers they capture. “Data inherently has all of the foibles of being human,” said Mark Hansen, director of the David and Helen Gurley Brown Institute for Media Innovation at Columbia University. “Data is not a magic force in society; it’s an extension of us.”

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