Big Data Is About People

 “The most important thing about big data is that it is about people,” says MIT scholar Sandy Pentland.

He might know. His work brings together computer science, sociology and psychology to better understand human behaviour. It’s called social physics.

Pentland will be a keynote speaker at next month’s Big Data Congress being held in Saint John. Pentland helped create the MIT Media Lab and he’s been an advisor to the United Nations and World Economic Forum as well as companies like Google and AT&T.

Forbes called him one of the “7 most powerful data scientists in the world.”

He’s also a serial entrepreneur, having founded more than a dozen companies.

Rational Behaviour Is Overrated

Pentland, says he often begins his talks discussing the “invisible hand” theory of economist Adam Smith, something familiar to most first year economic students. Smith claims that our economy and society is shaped by rational individuals competing for their own interests.

“That’s really the basis of democracy and markets, and this is how we run our world,” says Pentland. “It’s also social science a la 1680. We actually know we’re not fully rational but more importantly we’re not independent, and we’re not always greedy.”

“The independence one is the big one,” he continues. “We actually talk to each other. That’s where you get bubbles and fads. That’s what culture is, it’s people agreeing on things together.”

“People’s opinions are more of a function of the people they interact with than they are of the stuff between your ears. We’re more social creatures than we are independent creatures.”

That means ideas, trends and beliefs spread through “friendship networks” argues Pentland.

“If you look at what people look at online, they look at the same things and they talk about the same things as the people they spend time with physically.”

“The thing that I’ve learned is we are neither ‘hive mind’ nor rational individuals. What we are is cultural animals. It is our interactions with each other that create our culture.”

“The fact that you can now see evidence of people’s opinions and how the discussion is going – who talks with who – those sorts of things are really the central driver of society.”

“It is not the big data about things as much as it is about people.”

Measuring What Matters

Pentland’s most recent book is Social Physics. While it is not a new term, it’s a field of study that seems incredibly relevant today.

Pentland defines social physics as “the idea that with data and statistics we can understand the evolution of culture.”

He traces the history of social physics back to the first census reports in Europe. But now there are massive data streams about human behaviour emerging, everything from social media feeds to buying patterns.

“Now there’s lots more data and the math is a lot more powerful. You can begin to actually answer questions about what policies work. Is this really fair? Is this something that is going to hurt people? Where’s the disease going to spread? Is this going to make traffic better? Is this going to make the financial system more stable? All these questions that really matter, you can begin to get a lot of insight into now, and we ought to do that,” says Pentland.

“What I am interested in is finding out how humans work, and then having impact with that, making the world a better place.”

Pentland recently advised the United Nations on establishing sustainable development goals for next 15 years.

“Incorporated in that is the notion of using big data to measure poverty, inequality and environmental degradation. To manage ourselves and make the world a better place we have to measure, and that’s the role of things like social physics, ” he says.

“The big thing is you’ve got to know what’s going on before you can manage it.“