16 May 2008

Towards a data analytic society

A city of six hundred thousand, drug-tested in one fell swoop. No exceptions, no consent sought. Dosage of everything from sugar to crystal meth recorded, tabulated, sorted and analysed.

Not a scene from a paranoid TV drama, but a good example of scientific research interacting noninvasively with social policy. The project has not, so far as I know, yet been formally published at the time of writing, though it was presented to the American Chemical Society in August[1] and there has been plenty of press commentary[2][3]. Forty communities in Oregon were initially tested, with more planned, analysing small samples of water entering sewage treatment plants. And, interestingly, this ‘community urinalysis’ won at least guarded acceptance across the spectrum of opinion, from enforcement agencies to drug users.

Shift up several levels, for example to the UNAIDS[4] mapping of AIDS incidence[5] in terms of continental populations, and there is little public attention at all. Shift down to the level where those citizens are themselves units of analysis, and they become less happy – but, despite all those paranoid TV dramas, less so than would once have been the case.

There is increasing acceptance at all levels of the data analytic as a default approach to life. The fact of analysis occurring in societal contexts, in and of itself, has social impact. Computing in general, and scientific computing in particular, have brought many changes, but a data analytic view of the world is the one which will most separate the future from the past. We are in the middle of a revolution in the way populations and individuals think about the world, and computerised science is the trigger. [read more]

  1. Field, J., Sewage chemicals reveal evidence of illegal drug use, in News Service Weekly Press Package. 2007, American Chemical Society.

  2. Thompson, C., The 7th Annual Year in Ideas.(Magazine). The New York Times Magazine, 2007: p. 62(L).0028-7822

  3. Service, R.F., New York, Have You Ever Smoked Pot? ScienceNOW, 2007. 2007(822):

  4. p.3 et seq UNAIDS. UNAIDS: The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS. http://unaids.org/.

  5. UNAIDS. UNAIDS Knowledge Centre HIV Data. http://www.unaids.org/en/KnowledgeCentre/HIVData/default.asp

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