Big data accumulate in diverse areas of global activity. They are found in medical and environmental sciences, marketing, social media, finance and economics — practically in any area you can think of. As you read this, big data grow bigger because people buy things, take medical tests, tweet, take photos, create music, and publish blogs. As people express themselves, scientists make discoveries.

We are faced with this 21st century challenge: what to do with all this data. I don’t mean storing it on servers or under mountains. I mean how to make sense of big data and find actionable uses for it so that it can have beneficial impact on our world.

Here are some interesting recent examples that I enjoyed discovering:

  • Orbital Insight uses big data and satellite images to monitor forests and discover threatened areas before illegal logging takes place.
  • Architects Tham and Videgard ascertained their country’s preferences by analyzing 200 million clicks and 86,000 listings in order to make “The House of Clicks.” It is now Sweden’s most statistically sought after property. The data informed the measurable properties of the house, such as size, price, and the number of rooms, bathrooms and floors.
  • HDX —Humanitarian Data Exchange — enables separate humanitarian organizations to work together to create a single data source (big data) which they can utilize and add to, saving crucial time and resources while potentially saving lives.

These innovative and entrepreneurial uses of big data are fascinating. Perhaps these innovations began with simple questions such as: How do we stop our forests from being stripped? What is the most desirable plan for a home? How can we collaborate to help disadvantaged or threatened communities?

Given the possibilities and even at times life and death consequences, it seems data scientists would certainly benefit from collaborating with psychologists and behavioral scientists who understand the science of human cognition, emotions, and interpersonal dynamics. The issues are often too complex for any one specialty to have the answers.

But if you’re not convinced, here’s a point worth considering,

The truth is, that we need more, not less, data interpretation to deal with the onslaught of information that constitutes big data. The bottleneck in making sense of the world’s most intractable problems is not a lack of data, it is our inability to analyze and interpret it all. (Christian Madsbjerg)

In my chapter On the Road to Ephesus: Data-based wisdom and healthcare in the book Strategic Data-Based Wisdom in the Big Data Era (2015), I stress that “asking the wrong questions; seeing what you want to see; and making generalizations where there should be none did and does undermine understanding and knowledge.” So I ask now:

What unique insights can psychologists bring to formulating the questions, contributing to the analysis and interpretation of the data?

It is fairly well-known that organizations spend significant amounts of time and money on big data scientists, IT departments, and infrastructure. Sometimes these initiatives fail because they are not well thought out. In the many silos that can exist in organizations, it is possible that psychological dimensions are not well considered. For example, what psychological traits and cognitive styles, absent in most data analysts, are needed to see the whole picture? What is the human behavioral component of big data analysis and communication of findings? As evidence-based, scientific validation becomes stronger, what happens to intuition and serendipitous discoveries? Join us as we explore the wild world of big data from a psychological perspective.