[BackChannel] The Promise Of "Small Data"

Jeffrey Warren | TechPresident | July 17, 2013

techPresident's Backchannel series is an ongoing conversation between practitioners and close observers at the intersection of technology and politics. Jeffrey Warren is co-founder and research director of the Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science and a fellow in MIT's Center for Civic Media.

Big Data -- the idea that the ability to aggregate and sift through vast amounts of data can yield key insights about our society and provide the basis for better decision-making -- has a fatal flaw. The power and opportunity for abuse that Big Data brings is more evident than ever in the wake of the recent revelations about the NSA's data collection programs. But the fallibility of such vacuum-cleaner data collection systems goes beyond their lack of transparency. They raise serious questions about how our idea of a modern democracy can be adapted to an increasingly data-centric and technocentric society.

In this Wikipedia world of participatory creation, why do we assume that it is only the NSAs, Googles, and Facebooks of this world who can leverage such data-derived power? To me, Big Data is far less compelling than "Small Data" -- the idea of a bottom-up, voluntary, shared model of data aggregation whose participants are not mere data points. Small Data ecosystems -- in contrast to Big Data silos -- will be built on the open exchange of data, by and for the public, towards civic ends.