Whither Small Data?: The limits of “big data” and the value of “small data” studies

Whither Small Data?: The limits of “big data” and the value of “small data” studies

Call for Papers

Association of American Geographers Annual Meeting

9-13 April 2012 Los Angeles, CA

Organizers
Ryan Burns, Department of Geography, University of Washington
Jim Thatcher, Department of Geography, Clark University

Geographers studying technology have recently turned their gaze upon “big data” – massive datasets produced through the aggregation of crowdsourced, social, and other digitally available data. While the data itself may not be new, the ability to rapidly aggregate and analyze previously unheard of combinations of data has led to an increased focus on its importance to social explanation. Geographers have contributed to big data studies by incorporating the spatial dimension that is increasingly attached to such data and, in turn, exploring the ways big data has come to mediate the urban experience (Batty 2012).

Amidst this enthusiasm, some concern has been raised as to the diminished interest in ‘small data’ studies, the epistemic limits of big data, and the new challenges posed to privacy/confidentiality, access, data ownership, and ethical use, with the editor of Wired magazine infamously declaring that big data signals the ‘end of theory’ (Anderson 2008). Perhaps the most trenchant critique of big data came in the form of six provocations intending to temper unbridled enthusiasm surrounding big data (boyd and Crawford 2012), while others have tried to retain the important focus on small-scale research methodologies such as interviews, participant observation, ethnography, and grounded theory (Burrell 2012).

Rather than the deterministic result of technological development, big data and its accompanying methodologies are embedded within social and institutional values while also imbricating social relations in particular ways. The means and results of these processes offer rich potential for research; in other words, there is an impetus to study big data in its social and institutional contexts. To this end, critical GIS, feminist geography, critical social theory, and science & technology studies all promise to lend productive insights into these processes.

This session aims to explore these questions through both empirical and theoretical discussions, hopefully launching future conversation.

Potential Questions:
-Does “big data” represent a further step in the so-called computational turn, or is it something new?
-What are the epistemological commitments entailed in a “big data” study?
-What decisions entangle big data in existing social relations? How might these decisions shape future relations?
-In what contexts has the big data phenomenon developed, and how have these influenced its attendant concepts, methods, and uses?
-What is the continued role of “small data” vis-a-vis increased attention to big data? Where is big data not appropriate or advantageous?
-In what ways can critical theories of technology contribute to big data studies? From what other theoretical bases can big data draw? How might ‘small data’ studies draw upon these schools of thought when critiquing big data?
-What ethical dilemmas are introduced by big data, and from what ethical frameworks should big data draw?
-How do the implications of big data differ across diverse communities, populations, and demographics? How are race, gender, class, and other forms of difference implicated differently?

To participate please submit your talk title and abstract to Jim Thatcher (jthatcher@clarku.edu) or Ryan Burns (rlburns@uw.edu) by October 27th, 2012. This session will be part of #GEO/CODE 2013: Geoweb, Big Data and Society organized by the new mappings collaboratory.

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