Big data is really just a big collection of what people in the humanities would call thin data. Thin data is the sort of data you get when you look at the traces of our actions and behaviors. We travel this much every day; we search for that on the Internet; we sleep this many hours; we have so many connections; we listen to this type of music, and so forth. It’s the data gathered by the cookies in your browser, the FitBit on your wrist, or the GPS in your phone. These properties of human behavior are undoubtedly important, but they are not the whole story.
To really understand people, we must also understand the aspects of our experience — what anthropologists refer to as thick data. Thick data captures not just facts but the context of facts. Eighty-six percent of households in America drink more than six quarts of milk per week, for example, but why do they drink milk? And what is it like? A piece of fabric with stars and stripes in three colors is thin data. An American Flag blowing proudly in the wind is thick data.
Rather than seeking to understand us simply based on what we do as in the case of big data, thick data seeks to understand us in terms of how we relate to the many different worlds we inhabit. Only by understanding our worlds can anyone really understand “the world” as a whole, which is precisely what companies like Google and Facebook say they want to do.
Excerpted from Your Big Data Is Worthless If You Don’t Bring It Into The Real World in Wired by MIKKEL KRENCHEL AND CHRISTIAN MADSBJERG