Big Data and the World of Tomorrow Big Data and the World of Tomorrow

Big Data and the World of Tomorrow

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In the last 20 years the Internet has transformed the world: our lives, changed by the Internet, are increasingly interconnected and it seems that everything is getting faster and faster. We are surrounded by so much information that we no longer know what to pay attention to and what to skip over.

More and more we hear talk of big data, namely that set of data continuously generated by social networks, smart sensor networks, and the logs of online activity tracking systems, which tells us about new phenomena that show us the extent of the changes currently in progress: if, for example, Twitter is capable of creating a crash in the stock market or overturning governments it may seem that our world is out of control.

Although the Internet has changed our habits, our way of working and how we do  politics and economics, we still do not know the rules that govern this new highly interconnected environment of man and machine:  today groups of millions of people from all over the world can contribute to a single discussion at the same time and talk about a different topic every day.  To understand how people learn and influence each other we can no longer consider people as isolated individuals, but we need to think about the social dynamics that influence not only an individual's decisions but even the trends, the results of political elections and the performance of the global economy. We need a new science that incorporates all subjects, from psychology to sociology, linguistics, chaos dynamics and economy, to be able to take all this complexity into account. This science is called social physics.

Big data is the engine behind social physics: the enormous availability of data generated by the constant presence of machines connected to the Internet  that we have with us during the day allows us to discover the paths of our daily experiences. The tracks left by the GPS position of our mobile phones, the calls we make and the tweets we send tell  the story of our day-to-day life. Correlating this data with the weather patterns, pollution level indicators and motor traffic data gives us an image of our cities, albeit partial, but in any case it allows those who analyse such data to improve our experiences as individuals.  As a general rule, each type of event that leaves a sort of track, a datum, can be used to provide a better understanding of the complexity of the society we live in. As different variables affect our behaviours, the analysis of big data or, if you will, the social physics that studies it, brings together various fields of knowledge, from economy to sociology, psychology, decision theory and ecology. The hope is that all together they can help us contribute to a better world.

Thanks to social physics we can try and explain how the flow of messages from person to person and the ideas transmitted can change our behaviours, our way of working, and even redesign our cities and the society itself.  It is a data driven science, namely one that, unlike others, cannot operate in an isolated laboratory but rather needs to operate in a living lab, as its purpose lies in the capacity to analyse the big data of world events as they occur.

We met Prof. Alex ‘Sandy’ Pentland, director of the Human Dynamics Laboratory at MIT(Massachussets Institute of Technology), leader of the Forum on Big Data and Personal Data Initiatives of the World Economic Forum and member of the board of various multinationals, at the awards ceremony for our Big Data Challenge and put some questions to him.