Big Data & Risk

Emerging digital technologies are changing the way that experts and organizations reckon with risk. In public and private sector organizations of all stripes, in domains as varied as policing, social welfare, financial services, urban planning, research and entertainment, decision making about risk can increasingly leverage insights from novel ways of gathering, bringing together, and manipulating digital data.

While there are many different ways of defining big data, one powerful underlying idea is that it represents a break from previous eras, which were characterized by incomplete information. Big data, from this perspective, makes sample-based studies studies–long the hallmark of social scientific research–obsolete. It marks, one commentator provocatively claimed, the “end of theory”, because it is supposed that, with all the data at one’s fingertips, one no longer needs to theorize.

Today, a post-theoretical, collect-it-all mentality seems increasingly pervasive. For example, organizations like the Canadian Communications Security Establishment sift through massive amounts of communications metadata in an effort to identify and neutralize national security risks. Insurance companies now offer preferential rates to clients who equip their cars with trackers that gather detailed data about their driving habits. New forms of mobile entertainment gather geolocational data and merge it with data on user behaviour to try to make mobile games more enticing (and profitable), potentially creating new risks for users who may struggle with addictive gaming and gambling habits. In these and many more examples, big data analytics promise to yield novel insight. They enable new understandings of risk, yet they may also generate new risks for individuals and organizations. They may disadvantage some who run afoul of algorithmically shaped decisions about who or what is risky. And they may make
organizations appear as privacy-violating players in a broader surveillance-industrial complex.

How, then, do big data analytics mediate risk? This is a key question taken up in the events promoted on this website. Supported by several stakeholders across Concordia University, as well as by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, these events build on the activities of the Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies in Society and Culture’s Risk Research Working Group (CISSC RRWG)