Big Data: The Heroine?

By: Mathew Roberts

The CE3 Brown Bag lunch series is coming to a close for the fall semester. CE3 Director Scott Miller and I have been brainstorming who would lead the talks in the spring and further build dialogue among students, faculty, and researchers. This past Friday, I finally found an open time to stumble into the multidimensional world of big data and how it plays out in environmentally related discourse.

Dr. Ani Ruhil, associate professor and associate director of Research and Graduate Programs, spoke at the CE3 Brown Bag lunch series last fall. He amazed me with his talk about the mass amounts of information the digital world has captured.

What I gained in this short lecture is how this discipline takes form as both risk and opportunity.  This world of cloud computing and storage, analytical predication, and coded language is historically unprecedented. Big data has done what journalism may have intended to do from birth: record man’s deeds and be the keeper of his conscience.

The total amount of information in existence is equal to roughly 1.2 zettabytes (or over 1.3 trillion gigabytes [1] ). Our everyday lives revolve around shuffling megabytes and gigabytes across borders and boundaries. The concept of all digital information as a real measurement is astounding.


Big data is increasingly important in the economy. Big players such as Google and Facebook make their fortunes by accumulating, analyzing, and selling users’ data, much like an investment broker does with stocks on Wall Street.

Big data is integrated into my own work as well. As a CE3 Undergraduate Research Scholar, I have had the great opportunity to explore data on Ohio’s competitiveness in energy production and restoration of local watersheds from acid mine drainage. Journalists are highly dependent on statistics and figures of national and local governments’ regulations, policies, and procedures. They take big data to convey messages in understanding the environmental impacts and how it can be taken to foster sustainable action. In my previous work in creative advertising, big data offered a way to pinpoint markets, test effectiveness, and share marketing research in an effort to create an advertising campaign for national and international brands. In the end, big data is all about predicting behaviors and translating data through analytical tools.

In today’s culture, data is being used to convey points, connect links and inform in the face of great political debate. The product of this initiative has manifested into “data visualization” and it’s becoming widely popular.

This analysis can be used to create a better tomorrow — for example, by saving thousands of lives by improving healthcare. But it also can create uneven distributions of power when people, corporations, or agencies begin looking in places they should not.

Which brings us back to environmental issues. I bring this up because of the irreversibility and costs of using data the wrong way. If we accidently mine too much coal or drill too many wells and create a bigger cost in cleaning up water, we will need more data and money to clean up what more data and more money created in the first place.

Dr. Ruhil believes the future of analytics lies in the hands of the public and grabbing on to hope for much needed social changes. One such innovation is Kaggle. Founded in April 2010, Kaggle is “a platform for data prediction competitions. Companies, organizations and researchers post their large files of raw data only to have it sifted and molded into the world’s best data-mined models.” Because the big data players will ignore rural governments and their communities, “there is an opportunity to make a change for the better by putting your brains to work,” Ruhil said.

Although these ethical questions need more time, public debate, and consideration, we can always find hope in further data innovation despite the dual pulls of fear and opportunity.

Data innovation is especially exciting for students across the globe. Born into the world of computers, the next generation of learners will face the same ethical and logistical questions that we see today. Are you up for the challenge?



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