Small decisions with big impact on data analytics

Research output: Contribution to journalComment/debatepeer-review


Big social data have enabled new opportunities for evaluating the applicability of social science theories that were formulated decades ago and were often based on small- to medium-sized samples. Big Data coupled with powerful computing has the potential to replace the statistical practice of sampling and estimating effects by measuring phenomena based on full populations. Preparing these data for analysis and conducting analytics involves a plethora of decisions, some of which are already embedded in previously collected data and built tools. These decisions refer to the recording, indexing and representation of data and the settings for analysis methods. While these choices can have tremendous impact on research outcomes, they are not often obvious, not considered or not being made explicit. Consequently, our awareness and understanding of the impact of these decisions on analysis results and derived implications are highly underdeveloped. This might be attributable to occasional high levels of over-confidence in computational solutions as well as the possible yet questionable assumption that Big Data can wash out minor data quality issues, among other reasons. This article provides examples for how to address this issue. It argues that checking, ensuring and validating the quality of big social data and related auxiliary material is a key ingredient for empowering users to gain reliable insights from their work. Scrutinizing data for accuracy issues, systematically fixing them and diligently documenting these processes can have another positive side effect: Closely interacting with the data, thereby forcing ourselves to understand their idiosyncrasies and patterns, can help us to move from being able to precisely model and formally describe effects in society to also understand and explain them.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalBig Data and Society
Issue number2
StatePublished - Dec 27 2015


  • Validation
  • data mining
  • data preprocessing
  • error analysis
  • evaluation
  • social network analysis

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Information Systems
  • Communication
  • Computer Science Applications
  • Information Systems and Management
  • Library and Information Sciences


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