Big data to be made little: Individuals to mine data too

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A Chrome extension being developed will allow web users to choose what they want to share, and with whom, possibly altering the now Google-ized Internet landscape forever.

Big data techniques such as collecting browsing habits for marketers could soon be adapted and made available to individuals. It wouldn’t be through traditional mass collection and analysis, but by a tool that will allow individuals to choose what they want to share with others.

A kind of Big Data goes miniature data. The scheme is being developed at MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL).

The idea is that individuals should be able to share things they do online with others of their choosing in order to democratize the data that’s being collected anyway, the scientists think. In other words, it shouldn’t be just Google et al who knows what everyone is doing on the Internet. Individuals should be able to share chosen aspects of their activities with others, including groups.

“What are Democrats reading?” is an example of an answer that is not available now, yet should be, says David Karger, an MIT professor of electrical engineering, in an MIT news release.

Karger wants to enable this new kind of micro-analysis through a Chrome app, he calls Eyebrowse, that lets users ‘manage browsing.’ Whenever a user visits a webpage, a drop-down lets them choose how to distribute the URL or domain. That could be to a news-feed-like stream of read pages, or a word-cloud showing the frequency with which words turn up.

Friends, or like-minded folk, say, can see what each other have been reading. Maybe members of the local caucus have all started reading an online version of Stalin’s 1924 work “Trotskyism or Leninism?” Interesting. Importantly, one can choose what to share.

“There’s the ability to discover what’s popular, in a very broad way,” Karger says.

Data points, such as who’s doing what, “are things that the population as a whole would be interested in knowing, and also things that scholars would be interested in knowing,” Karger says in the release.

“Awareness of where your friends are, the ability to run into them, the ability to go somewhere and discover that they were there before, and you may want to talk to them about this thing that you both saw” will be possible with the system, Karger believes.

Traditional tracking doesn’t give the users any options over what’s tracked, he says. His system would be different. It’s “voluntary tracking,” he explains.

A field trial was recently completed, the news release says. Twenty-four users were found to share about 10 to 25 URLs per day. However, when the users were friends, the shares rocketed to 60 or 80 links a day.

“Data has traditionally been used by anyone from corporations to the government,” says Mor Naaman, an associate professor of information science at Cornell, quoted by the MIT release. “But the goal of this system is to make the data more useful for the individuals themselves, to give them more control, and to make it more useful to communities,” Naaman says.

Google and others’ Big Data becomes Miniature Data. Data for the people, in other words.

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