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“We’re going to tell people how to interview databases”: The rise of data (big and small) in journalism

Kenneth Cukier, coauthor of "Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work and Think," applies his findings to his position as data editor of The Economist.

Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier published their joint tome on big data this week, Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work and Think. Mayer-Schönberger, a professor of Internet governance and regulation at Oxford, and Cukier, the data editor of The Economist, argue that having access to vast amounts of data will soon overwhelm our natural human tendency to look for correlation and causality where there is none. In the near future, we'll be able to rely on much larger pools of "messy" data rather than small pools of "clean" data to get more accurate answers to our questions.

"We are taking things we never thought of as informational and rendering them in data," Mayer-Schönberger said in a talk Wednesday at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard. "Once we think of it as data, we can organize it and extract new information."

Cukier is a journalist, not just a numbers man, having been The Economist's business correspondent in Japan and global technology correspondent before that. So when he looks at how data is changing how we think, he also thinks about what journalists can do with it:

When we teach journalism in the future, we're not just going to teach people the fundamentals of how to do an interview, or what a lede paragraph is. We're going to tell people how to interview databases. And also, just as we train journalists by telling them that sometimes people that we interview are unfaithful and lie, we're going to have to teach them to be suspicious of the data, because sometimes the data lies, too. You have to bring the same scrutiny as in the analog world - talking to people and observing - to the data as well.

Mayer-Schönberger and Cukier shared plenty of dark scenarios of where big data could lead us - to a world where you can be imprisoned not on the basis of crimes you did commit but crimes you might commit, or a world in which the owners of data begin to look and act like the railroad barons of the 19th century. But despite these predictions, Mayer-Schönberger and Cukier are ultimately closer to being a pair of cheerleaders than naysayers. Said Mayer-Schönberger: "The culprit here is not big data itself, but how we use it."

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