Photo of Data Studio at Cal Poly

Written by on May 11, 2012

Quentin Hardy on what big data means

Fact as Verb: How data is changing nouns into verbs. That was the title of Quentin Hardy’s talk (listen to the podcast, below) at the opening celebration for Cal Poly’s new Data Studio at Robert E. Kennedy Library. Many of us wondered what that title meant. What did Hardy, Deputy Tech Editor, The New York Times, have planned? What does big data mean for us as a society and for graduating students entering the job market? How can we contextualize the changes that communication technology is inspiring in our world? And, since I’m a former English teacher, how do nouns become verbs?

Google is a verb we all know
Actually, I have a pretty good hunch. We’re creating words that evolve from our realities all the time. Google quickly went from being the name of a company to being something you do when you want an answer from the Internet. Yahoo even built an aspirational ad campaign on being a verb. “Do you Yahoo?” I’ve even heard someone use “spa” as a verb (when I lived in Santa Monica). So, all that said, the ubiquity of — which includes the active collecting of — and growing access to data means that we can ideally better understand our world. That in itself suggests an action, a doing, a verb.

Big data is in the “eye of the beholder”
Defining terms is always a good place to start. So how do you define data, something that is so broad and pervasive? We’re all generating data all the time and that data says something about us. Data is not just about science, technology, numbers. Our lists for the hardware store, our photo tags, our spending habits — these are personal examples. Yet personal is no longer that; in addition to being political it’s also commercial. Data is a commodity as well as a resource. (Happily, it can also be art; see the amazing work of Aaron Koblin.)

Here’s Quentin Hardy defining big data:

How we see ourselves in the world and in the future
To paraphrase Hardy below, this is the interesting part. We’ve been through technological revolutions before. While we may feel that we’ve arrived in the future with the latest iPhone or Square payment, we’ve only just begun:

Higher education needs to “step up”
Abuzz with students visually demonstrating their work with big data on big screens, the Data Studio was a happening place on April 26, 2012. It was one example of what a university can provide its students to prepare them for a world awash in crazy big data. As technology changes academic institutions must respond — including of course, libraries. As home to all disciplines, a place where categories can be broken down and students and faculty and community can engage in whole-system thinking, the library is a natural place to inspire collaboration.

Historical context
Finally, all this data and technology can sometimes make it feel like a brave (scary) new world. Especially since I just read James Bamford’s article on the new Utah Data Center in Wired. After Hardy’s talk, I asked him about the article; he didn’t seem too worried. Perhaps it’s the historical context that helps. Here are Hardy’s reflections on how new technology has influenced politics and society, in an example from the Reformation:

Cal Poly Data Studio
In the spirit of moving forward, the Data Studio has only just begun. Mackenzie Smith, who was just named university librarian at UC Davis and who before that oversaw digital library research and development as Research Director at MIT Libraries, will give a talk on May 24. Her research focuses on the Semantic Web for scholarly communication and digital data curation in support of e-research.

Here’s more about the Data Studio and the opening celebration:

Read more about the Data Studio.
See photos from the opening celebration on Flickr.

UPDATE: You can also watch Quentin Hardy’s complete talk on Cal Poly’s YouTube.

– Karen Lauritsen

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