The Reading Space

Of Data Scientists, Big Data, the City and Dancers

In order to grasp and analyze rhythms, it is necessary to get outside them, but not completely: be it through illness or a technique. A certain exteriority enables the analytic intellect to function. However, to grasp a rhythm it is necessary to have been grasped by it; one must let oneself go, give oneself over, abandon oneself to its duration. Like in music and the learning of a language (in which one only really understand the meanings and connections when one comes to produce them, which is to say, to produce spoken rhythms).

“In order to grasp this fleeting object, which is not exactly an object, it is therefore necessary to situate oneself simultaneously inside and outside.”

- Henri Lefebvre, French sociologist, intellectual and philosopher, Rhythmanalysis: Space, Time and Everyday Life.

Lefebvre in his 1992 collection of essays talks about the rhythm of cities. To me this is the flow of the people, the morning coffee routine, the lunchtime decisions, the evening meandering, the beat of the bar on a Friday night, the sweat dripping off the ceiling of a tiny club, the sun coming up late on a Saturday night. Strangers exchanging stolen kisses under umbrellas, the race across the road in a gap in the traffic, the sudden surprising green park round the corner, the hidden entrance to the underground stations.

How people shape the city, the pulse as agents gather together to form a temporary autonomous zone before collapsing back to being shaped by the city. To be not just in the city, but of the city. (…)

Big Data

You can’t just turn your Data Scientist eye onto something and say “Oh we’ll throw this into MapReduce, it’ll be awesome”, you need to have been part of that data, to have lived it. (…)

To deal with big data you have to have been in it, not a Scientist but as a Dancer. (…)

But that isn’t enough, many people are already immersed in the data, here our journalists know all this stuff inside out. Getting carried away by the rhythms is as easy as getting in and letting yourself go. According to Lefebvre you then have to get back out again. (…)

And that’s the trick…

“in order to grasp and analyze rhythms, it is necessary to get outside them, but not completely: be it through illness or a technique. A certain exteriority enables the analytic intellect to function.”

(…)

You can’t have someone who’s a “Data Scientist” just turn up and apply their tools, clusters and statistics. They haven’t been in-it enough. And you can’t have someone who’s within the company, who understands and feels the flow of data everyday, unless, unless they know how to separate themselves, to get outside. When people grow with a company, love the company, understand everything that company could be, getting outside it is a hard won skill. The “Scientist” needs to be able to remove themselves and apply clear analytical skill, but with the fundamental understanding of the subject.

So all those companies advertising for a Data Scientist, I think I have this to say…

  1. You want a Dancer not a Scientist.
  2. Good luck with that!

As for the future of (data driven) journalism…

“In order to grasp this fleeting object, which is not exactly an object, it is therefore necessary to situate oneself simultaneously inside and outside.”

The “fleeting object, which is not exactly an object” that’s your story. The flow of data will gather together now and then forming a tangible shape for you to spot and grasp before it collapses back into the stream. You have to be in it to understand it, and outside to spot it. Just one or the other wont do.

When the Data Scientist/Dancer has sufficiently honed their skill to identify useful shifts, patterns and rhythms in the data, they can then set up algorithms to spot these on their behalf.

To understand the usefulness of algorithms we should first fully understand Golems and Robots.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golem
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/R.U.R._(Rossum%27s_Universal_Robots)

Reverend Dan Catt, works at the Guardian, previously at Flickr as a frontend engineer, Of Data Scientists, Big Data, the City and Dancers, 2 June, 2011

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  1. notegrids reblogged this from thereadingspace and added:
    extending Lefebvre: One must be simultaneously within the thought, the stream and rhythm of thought, and outside of it,...
  2. thereadingspace posted this