The world of Big Data demystified in winter online course

Big Data sheds light on everything from equality of opportunity to health care, from judicial decisions to climate change, and this winter, students can learn how to analyze it.

A course entitled “Using Big Data to solve economic and social problems” will provide insight into the many way and fields in which Big Data can be applied. The course is open to students in Economics and other majors, and may well be of interest to individuals considering taking a course under one of Brock’s new admission pathways.

Professor Tomson Ogwang says that ECON 1P95 shows students how the information collected during our everyday engagements online can be analyzed to predict “elections, movies, epidemics, tourism, crime, unemployment, poverty and inequality,” among other things.

“Students will learn that their daily activities on social media add to the body of information, which can be very useful for prediction and policy analysis,” says Ogwang. “When students are busy on social media, they are, in fact, making important contributions to Big Data that can be used to predict many real-life phenomena.”

Ogwang says he was drawn to the field of economics because of his fascination with data. “As a person with a keen interest in statistics and econometrics, I have always been interested in alternative sources of data that can be used to better inform decision-making,” he explains.

But why is Big Data unusual?

“Big Data are characterized by the so-called three ‘v’s — the volume of data, the velocity, or the speed at which data are continuously updated in real time, and variety,” says Ogwang, adding the information is cheap to collect but “owing to large volumes, Big Data cannot be conveniently analyzed using conventional data analytic tools.”

In the course, students will explore the machine learning required to find patterns in Big Data, and also how the variety of types and sources of data and the speed at which data accumulate can help researchers tackle enormous systemic problems.

“The nice thing about such data is that they can be collected in real time and the analysis can be done very quickly,” says Ogwang. As an example of how up-to-date Big Data can be, he points to scholarly work on racism and racial inequality that has recently been completed based on the search term “Black Lives Matter.”

“Information gathering on the internet precedes many actions,” Ogwang says. “Google searches using unemployment-related keywords can act as an early warning system about the unemployment situation and state of the economy.”

He also notes that Google searches based on keywords relating to the flu can also flag unfolding epidemics — information that could be useful in the time of a global pandemic.

Students in the course will also have the opportunity to dig into the field regarding a subject that is important to them by choosing an issue and collecting Big Data to help make sense of it using relevant software.

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