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The Big Deal with Big Data Isn’t (Just) the Data

MIT’s new online certificate course offers entirely new ways of thinking about data analysis for your business.

By 2020, each of the 7.7 million people in the world is expected to produce 1.7 megabytes of new information every second of every day, and currently only 0.5 percent of all data is ever analyzed and used, according to research firm IDC. But the numbers alone don't tell the story about why big data is a big deal.

No doubt: The extent of the impact businesses could have by integrating this information into their decision-making processes is massive. But there’s something else at play as well.

Alex “Sandy” Pentland, founding faculty director of MIT Connection Science and instructor for the new MIT EXperimental Learning (XL) certificate course in Big Data and Social Analytics, calls it “social science” or “social analytics."

The approach involves not just the what, but the why.

Following is a brief extract from Module 1 of the course, in which Pentland talks about the importance of paying attention to social context. “Understanding these human-machine systems is what’s going to make our future social systems stable and safe,” he says. “We are getting beyond complexity, data science and web science, because we are including people as a key part of these systems.”

That's an inviting offer, but a somewhat perturbing one, too.

One of the primary concerns about big data is the potential for increased threats to personal privacy through greater access to information. In a post-Snowden world, data ethics take center stage. Demand for privacy retention has given rise to solutions such as MIT’s bitcoin-inspired Enigma, which promises, through a combination of math and code, to allow anyone to share data in the cloud while still keeping it private.

Large companies such as Citi have used big data to reduce costs through cloud-based analytics. Others, such as the leading gaming company, Caesars, have benefitted from faster and more informed decision-making. Verizon Wireless, on the other hand, has used its deep resources in mobile device data to offer new products and services through a business unit called Precision Market Insights. The unit sells information about the frequency that users visit locations, what activities they’re involved in, as well as background information.

Pentland, who was recently included in Forbes' list of the world's seven most powerful data scientists, elaborates: “That’s the promise of big data—to really understand the systems that make our technological society. As you begin to understand them, then you can build systems that are better.”

For instance: "One type of big data and connection analysis concerns financial data—not just the flash crash or the Great Recession, but also all the other sorts of bubbles that occur," Pentland says. "These are systems of people, communications, and decisions that go badly awry. Big data shows us the connections that cause these events. Big data gives us the possibility of understanding how these systems of people and machines work, and whether they’re stable.”

MIT Makes a Big Deal About Big Data

MIT’s mandate is to advance knowledge in areas addressing the 21st century’s great challenges by educating students in science, technology, and other fields of scholarship that will best serve the world.

To this end, the Institute is collaborating with online education company GetSmarter to deliver an eight-week online course designed to equip professionals with the fundamental theory and analysis of big data. That, in turn, will help them better understand and predict human networks and behaviors in social structures by investigating and using the technical tools, data sets, and code scripts associated with big data analysis.

There's clearly a need for such knowledge. Within two years, the United States could experience a shortage of up to 190,000 workers with deep analytical skills, according to McKinsey & Co. The research also projected a need for 1.5 million managers and analysts who understand how to use big-data analysis to make effective decision.

“There’s a huge demand for skills in big data and deep analytics, not just locally, but globally," says Dave Shrier, managing director of MIT Connection Science and a course instructor alongside Pentland and other MIT data-science experts. "Having access to this knowledge is set to become the foundation that intelligent decision-making is built on."

With privacy top of mind, the course makes a point of paying attention to data ethics. Considerations around identity, security, and privacy are investigated to ensure that students learn how to use data conscientiously.

“The benefit that this course presents is immense. You’ll have the opportunity to learn about innovative tools, like Funf and Bandicoot, by the very people who invented them, and that’s powerful," Shrier says. Students will also received guidance in working with the Reality Commons data set, a unique collection of fine-grained data about human behavior developed by Pentland's team.

The online learning model used in MIT XL’s courses is underpinned by a predominantly constructivist, action-oriented approach. Students are viewed as active participants, collaborating with their peers to create knowledge. Learning activities and assignments focus on engagement rather than instruction.

Put another way: Learning online no longer means learning alone.

“Our unique, supported approach to online education has led to a course-completion rate of over 90 percent, with more than 40,000 working professionals educated to date,” notes Amy Johnson, chief of education at GetSmarter. “We believe we’ve made great strides in understanding student motivation and retention strategies that see one-to-one coaching relationships and tutor-led, small-group learning taking center stage. These are just two of the quality indicators that really matter to us as we strive to deliver better education online.”

And it’s not just what, how, and from whom you learn. It's who you learn with as well. "The response to this course has been exceptionally positive due to the near-universal relevance of what it promises to deliver for students,” says GetSmarter CMO Ryan O’Mahoney, noting that the course has attracted global interest. The current session serves more than 850 students from 50 countries, including the United States, Canada, Brazil, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, Poland, Russia, Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand and elsewhere.

“The interest we’re getting ranges across industries, from the world’s tech giants and investment companies to financial-services institutions and even big-data specialists," O'Mahoney says. "The wealth of knowledge found in these students alone is massive."

Bottom line: The course offers unparalleled access to thought leaders in big data and social analytics within a dynamic, applied environment ensuring that students walk away with not just theoretical knowledge, but practical skills in analytics as well.

To learn more about MIT EXperimental Learning's new online certificate course in Big Data and Social Analytics, please visit the course home page.

 

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