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Social Physics and the Human Face of Big Data

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Social Physics and the Human Face of Big Data

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Alex Pentland is a prominent computer scientist and big data guru who runs the Human Dynamics Lab at MIT; he recently released a new book, Social Physics, that talks a lot about data-driven society – whether that data is Big or not.

The New Yorker recently recounted an example from Pentland's new book that takes a common productive and social unit, the office, and uses it as a living laboratory for gathering human data with immediate real-world implications.

The metaphor in Pentland’s title, “Social Physics,” is meant to express the extraordinary concreteness of his data, which—unlike the data captured by Facebook or Google—is rooted in your physical actions: in what you do, rather than what you say. (He calls what he does “reality mining,” in contrast to “data mining.”) But it’s also meant to emphasize the predictive power of his models...

The landing page for Pentland's MIT base of operations brings together blogs, videos, data and white papers that look at similar issues in order to figure out how to "create organizations and governments that are cooperative, productive, and creative."

The engine that drives social physics is big data: the newly ubiquitous digital data that is becoming available about all aspects of human life. By using these data to build a predictive, computational theory of human behavior we can hope to engineer better social systems.

Pentland also recently spoke with German publication Der Spiegel about his book and the social science of Big Data.

Big Data is to the study of social behavior what the microscope was to the study of bacteria. If you want to construct a better society, you need a complete picture of social interactions. Until very recently we had neither the data nor the mathematics to analyze it. But now, thanks to Big Data, we can know exactly who interacts when, where and with whom.

Getting actionable conclusions from this data is what the idea of Social Physics (a term coined years ago by August Comte, "the father of sociology") is all about, by replicating Big Data ideas in smaller, more easy-to-approach environments, like the aforementioned office experiment.

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