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Data, data, data - the world is crazy about data. But how do you get it?

Data, data, data - the world is crazy about data. But how do you get it?

Blog • • Carolina Antunez and Dr Sophie von Stumm

When I started working at The Hungry Mind Lab, in the Department of Psychology at Goldsmiths University of London, I was rather sceptical of ‘data’ and ‘quantification’.  As an undergrad in Media & Sociology, I am naturally concerned about the data-fication of our society and the growing power that technology has over our lives. Back then, I could not have imagined the size of the industry behind the development of new technologies for collecting data – and I certainly didn’t know about its academic relevance. But that didn’t stop me from applying for a research assistant job that focused on promoting the use of technology for research.

My job was to organise an event that would bring awareness of the latest assessment technologies to early career researchers in the behavioural sciences – but I knew nothing about assessment technologies (and I didn’t understand the behavioural science jargon). To start the event planning, I was asked to interview behavioural science experts about their uses of research technology,  for example, I visited a team of world-leading behaviour geneticists at King’s College London and I talked to a group of virtual reality experts at University College London. Although I felt a little awkward at first to discuss assessment technologies with these very knowledgeable and famous scientists, the interviews soon showed me what all the data fuss was about.

I became aware of ground-breaking technologies that will revolutionize our understanding of human individuality. For example, the FaceReader, a new tool by Noldus, now makes it possible study people’s emotions based on subtle expressions in their faces while watching a movie clip or scene. I also learned about portable assessment technologies and wearables, virtual reality equipment, augmented reality valuable tools, and customisable tools, like web-based experiment builders and survey tools. Soon I was persuading the people behind the most pioneering research technologies to contribute to our event, which at that point finally had a name  Better Data: Technologies for Measuring Behaviour  as well as a date – the 26th October 2016.

As October approached, I had less and less time to explore gamified cognitive tests or interact with avatars in virtual spaces. Instead, I became immersed with the more mundane aspects of hosting an event, such as advertising, ticketing, catering, and confirming the contributors. It’s the phase in event planning that makes your realise that there’s always more to do and that even more can go wrong. But on the actual day of the event, everything came together perfectly. We had attracted over 130 early career researchers to attend and get hands-on experience with the latest assessment technologies. We showcased overall 20 assessment technologies in the morning of day. After lunch, we heard short presentations about different aspects of measuring behaviour with technology from expert speakers, including scientists, journalists and technology developers.

The event taught me how important technology has become for research, including the study of behaviour but also all other scientific disciplines. For example, ETHOS is an app for sociologists to conduct field research: It serves as an ethnographic observation system. ETHOS organises and stores the researcher’s oral and written notes, as well as photos and videos from field observations and interviews in real time. The app helps researchers to identify patters in their data entries, minimising the time spent sorting and organising the information. 

Notwithstanding my new found enthusiasm for collecting data, I am aware that big data come with big challenges, mainly surrounding the ethics of the use and storage of data. It is an important task for today’s researchers -- but also policy makers and technology companies -- to address these issues in ways that ensure the protection of people’s personal data while producing new scientific insights at the same time. Perhaps a topic for our next event…

This article was prepared by Carolina Antunez and Dr Sophie von Stumm, who directs the Hungry Mind Lab. The event ‘Better Data: Technologies for measuring behaviour’ was funded by a British Academy Rising Star Engagement Award to Dr Sophie von Stumm. All information about the event, including the showcased technologies and videos of the day, can be found here: www.better-data.co.uk.

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