Peer Critique

Critical Questions for Big Data – Provocations for a cultural, technological, and scholarly phenomenon

By danah boyd & Kate Crawford

This article focuses on six major points related to the application of Big Data in cultural, technological, and scholarly backgrounds. Its’ arguments centre on the idea of analysing information that is gathered from social medias, namely Twitter. Written from a perspective of social scientists, its focus is on the ethical problems of Big Data, questioning the correctness of the assumptions that are made when using this data for social models.

The main points raised are: Big Data is seen as knowledge without question; the identification of patterns that might not exist; overlooking the limitations these methods provide; Big, or lots of data does not necessarily provide good data ; Information being published or taken without context, leading to misleading results; lack of information to the users whose data is analysed by different parties without knowledge of the former; creation of a new social divide based on those who have access and extract information from Big Data and those who do not.

In general, the text seems to be trying to reach a broader audience, since the language used is quite simple. The structure is easy enough to follow, having the six points, each with its own subsection where the argument is made.

My main points of critique would be:

  1. In terms of structure, I feel the authors did a good job. However, the last paragraph, working as a conclusion, should have its own section to capture the readers’ attention. I quote the most important idea, but the conclusion could be extended a bit more, such as leaving a question, to recall back to the title.

“We should consider how the tools participate in shaping the world with us as we use them. The era of Big Data has only just begun, but it is already important that we start questioning the assumptions, values, and biases of this new wave of research. As scholars who are invested in the production of knowledge, such interrogations are an essential component of what we do.” – (2012, p. 675)

  1. I understand that there is an emphasis on the words data and Big Data. However, they are used way too often in the essay, the word data can be seen a total of 221 times in the document, and the words Big Data can be seen 70 times. The over usage of the same word can result in numbing effect. Bellow, I quote an example where this can be seen, and my advice is to just use synonyms such as information, etc.

“In fact, some of the data encompassed by Big Data (e.g. all Twitter messages about a particular topic) are not nearly as large as earlier data sets that were not considered Big Data (e.g. census data). Big Data is less about data that is big than it is about a capacity to search, aggregate, and cross-reference large data sets.” – (2012, p. 663)

  1. Finally, and this relates to the structure again, we are told from the title that they will be addressing the big questions that come with Big Data. However, we are not presented with clear questions, mostly coming after a long exposition or not at all. To address this I would suggest making the subtitles as rhetorical questions, for instance:

Big Data, changing the definition of knowledge? Instead of – “Big Data changes the definition of knowledge” – (2012, p. 665)

Tiago Ribeiro


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