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Investigating the Social and Economic Life of Big Data

Spotlight On:

Peter Chow-White
Simon Fraser University
School of Communication

The GeNA Lab at Simon Fraser University is investigating the social and organizational impacts of information technologies, communication networks and the turn to big data in sectors spanning genomics and health to NBA basketball. 

Dr. Peter Chow-White, Associate Professor in the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University, is the Director of the GeNA Lab.

“If the 1990s was all about the information superhighway and the network society, then the first 10 years of the 21st century is perhaps best described as the decade of data,” says Peter Chow-White. 

The GeNA Lab is studying how digital communications technology, such as popular social media platforms, has become incorporated into the organizational, business, and everyday lives of citizens, entrepreneurs, scientists, and political actors. Through interviews, content analysis, social network analysis, and systematic reviews, the lab is applying social science research methods to develop empirically based research to address current big data issues. 

While data mining is not a new phenomenon, there have been recent changes in the volume and nature of data networks. Chow-White says these changes reflect the emerging belief that gathering and mining massive amounts of digital data networks will give objective insight into human relations and decision-making influences. 

While these new data driven practices offer many opportunities for citizens and entrepreneurs, they also present some ethical concerns and risks. For example, data mining personal social media networks by companies and governments and sharing practices by everyday people, challenges traditional notions of privacy and raises new questions about surveillance. This grey area is what the GeNA Lab hopes to explore in greater detail.

“On the surface, the technologies used to mine big data have the appearance of value-free and neutral inquiry,” says Chow-White. “However, as information entrepreneurs use database and data mining technologies to purposively organize the social world, it’s difficult to see the embedded assumptions and organizational and cultural values of decision-makers.”

WestGrid resources are currently being used by Chow-White’s lab to help support two projects: ‘Big Data in Professional Sports’ and ‘Twitter and 23andMe’. 

The ‘Big Data in Professional Sports’ project focuses on the use of advanced analytics in the National Basketball Association (NBA). With its roots in baseball and SABRE metrics, analytics are now employed in some capacity in every professional sport arena. 

“We are currently conducting interviews with contacts in professional basketball including scouts, analysts and coaches to explore how the rise of advanced analytics has altered the knowledge-building and decision-making processes within sports organizations.”

The other project, ‘Twitter and 23andMe’, related to the recent controversy surrounding the direct-to-consumer (DTC) genetic company 23andMe, is investigating how social media (tweets in particular) is facilitating public discourse around genomic technologies and health policies. The GeNA Lab has collected a sample of tweets mentioning 23andMe, and is performing a sentiment analysis on them to see how people perceive the company and DTC genetic testing.  

“We hope to gain insight on how this issue is being discussed since public opinion on new technologies may influence policies and impact what consumers have access to and how much control they have over their genetic and health information,” said Chow-White.

The outcomes of this research have potentially far-reaching consequences given the growing impact genetic test results have on personal health decisions – exemplified in the highly publicized case of Angelina Jolie’s double mastectomy.  

WestGrid’s ownCloud storage service has enabled the lab to easily share common files and documents amongst multiple lab members and faculty members from other departments, who are not part of the lab but are also involved in the research. 

“WestGrid’s ownCloud service has made our work more convenient and fluid since we are able to coordinate materials and resources better,” said Chow-White. 

The Lab plans to disseminate scholarly outputs and policy work to an interdisciplinary community and engage broader communities and partners who are innovating digital technologies. Chow-White says that this new knowledge will benefit policy makers, regulators, practitioners, and users to enable best practices for future development of social networking, business, sports analytics, and healthcare.