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Kenneth Cukier

Kenneth Cukier is the Data Editor of The Economist. His writings have also appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Prospect, The Financial Times and Foreign Affairs, among[…]

Datafication refers to the fact that daily interactions of living things can be rendered into a data format and put to social use.

Kenneth Cukier: Datafication refers to the fact that we’re looking at more aspects of life that we never actually understood as being informational before.  And finding out that that in fact there is an informational quality to it that we can render into a data format. So what we’re seeing with social media companies is they’re actually datafying aspects of the life that we never really saw that could be datafied.  So for example Facebook datafies our friendships. Twitter datafies our whispers or maybe our stray thoughts.  And LinkedIn datafies our professional contacts.  And more and more and more are we seeing that we’re able to take the daily interactions of living, things that we never really saw that can be rendered into a data format and we’re putting it into data formats.

Now what does this mean in the big picture?  The fact is we’re just at the outset of the big data era.  So we’re gonna find out.  But you can just use your imagination and think of some of the extraordinary uses.  One way that we’re doing it is looking at who contacts whom on Twitter and who’s one’s followers are.  And we’re able to identify that, and we never known this before that subpopulations exist that are either immunized for the flu or are not.  Now it’s a public health issue.  The whole point of vaccinations is that you take a broad population, you vaccinate many but not all and everyone is covered.

What we’ve just now learned with Twitter is that this idea of herd immunity might not be the case because there’s whole subgroups of the population that all don’t get vaccinated yet they all hang out together.  They do virtually and we’re seeing that those virtual ties are also physical ties.  I want to stress this sounds like it might be an intuitive thing.  It’s not.  It sounds like this might just be a nice thing to know, it’s deadly important.  It’s very serious.

And it took datafying relationships and interactions to learn it.  So when you think about it in the grand scheme, what big data means is we are able to learn things about ourselves at the population level, at a huge scale, that we never could in the past.  So lots of different disciplines, in one case sociology, totally gets upended.  Because in the past you ran small studies on small groups, now you’re looking at it in population scale size.

Directed / Produced by Jonathan Fowler & Elizabeth Rodd