Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Big Data Troves Stay Forbidden to Social Scientists - NYTimes.com

Big Data Troves Stay Forbidden to Social Scientists - NYTimes.com:

It is “big data,” the vast sets of information gathered by researchers at companies like Facebook, Google and Microsoft from patterns of cellphone calls, text messages and Internet clicks by millions of users around the world. Companies often refuse to make such information public, sometimes for competitive reasons and sometimes to protect customers’ privacy. But to many scientists, the practice is an invitation to bad science, secrecy and even potential fraud.

The issue came to a boil last month at a scientific conference in Lyon, France, when three scientists from Google and the University of Cambridge declined to release data they had compiled for a paper on the popularity of YouTube videos in different countries.

The chairman of the conference panel — Bernardo A. Huberman, a physicist who directs the social computing group at HP Labs here — responded angrily. In the future, he said, the conference should not accept papers from authors who did not make their data public. He was greeted by applause from the audience.

Last year the National Science Foundation said that researchers who receive its funds would be “expected” to share data with other researchers.

Many scientists agree that this is as it should be.

“The obvious answer is that there needs to be more access to data,” said Alex Pentland, director of the Human Dynamics Laboratory at M.I.T. “That is beginning to happen as governments and industry realize that they need to better understand the promise and limits of big data; for instance, we will be announcing a huge, multicountry release of phone data soon.”

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