Perspectives: Little i, Big I, little data, Big Data

Conversations from #iConf15 still linger at the edges of my day, or in those quiet spaces that Chicago commutes create: what my son used to call “think time”. The conference was hosted by the University of California, Irvine this year: and I marked out my sessions carefully. I anchored the week with the Friday Plenary: Prof. Christine Borgman. Her talk on Big Data, Little Data, No Data (2015) struck me, as her work often does, as crystalline and pure with no hint of hyperbole or aggrandizing affect. So much of her work at UCLA has informed my own ever-growing understanding of information as cultural and deeply contextual. The idea that data are defined by the definer seems, well, obvious. Yet, in today’s economy we speak of data as monolithic in their scale and scope: vast markets have sprung into being promising to teach, tame, harness, or control.

In the end, though, it’s who and where and why that shape the what. Her slide from her talk illustrates the point with one topic: “temperature”. To an engineering researcher, “Temperature is temperature.” Simple enough. But to a biologist, it’s complex; multi-faceted almost to the point of meaninglessness. I could almost hear the biologist, with perhaps a tone of mania, “There are HUNDREDS of ways to measure TEMPERATURE!”

I’m not a biologist, statistician, or data wrangler: but I do know communities are where data live. The everyday meaning we make from micro-data are immediate, almost intimate. I suppose that is why I identify with the biologist quoted on this slide:  there really are hundreds of ways to draw meaning and ask new questions. How informing data are when we are curious enough to ask those emergent questions.

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