Big data sociology, a trend for the future?

Dirk Hebling from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich Sabina Bobst

Just over a year ago the FuturICT project lost out on the European Union’s biggest ever research subsidy. But its concept remains that masses of data, much of it already being gathered in different ways, could revolutionise societies and the economy.

This content was published on January 5, 2014 - 11:00
Marc-André Miserez, in Zurich,

“FuturICT was just a bit ahead of its time,” says Dirk Helbing, FuturICT's scientific coordinator from Zurich's Federal Institute of Technology.

“It was the newest idea – and the two winners of the [EU] Flagship subsidy have already got a track record. Graphene has a Nobel prize attached to it - and the Human Brain Project has accumulated ten years of research. From that point of view, our project has been a success.”

Despite the project's crushing disappointment, Helbing, a medical doctor who changed tack and went into sociology, wants to stay positive.

Mathematician colleague Steven Bishop of University College London seems to be finding it harder to accept. “It felt like a knife going into my heart. I felt very guilty that I couldn’t create a narrative off this project clear enough to convince everyone.”

“Knowledge accelerator”

FuturICT, is not an easy project for the layperson to decrypt. The title is a play on words combining Futurist and ICT for Information and Communication Technology. Its central idea is that as we've never had so much data being generated all around us - why not combine it and use it to better understand the world.

The people behind the project say FuturICT would be a “knowledge accelerator” and that it could be a “Living Earth simulator”, constantly fed by a digital “planetary nervous system”.  A “global participatory platform” would allow citizens to engage with and control FuturICT.

“The main issue that hit the press is the issue about privacy and data,” says Bishop. “Something that we intended to tackle head on, but now, our data are left in the hands of big corporates. The press really focused on the possible misuse of data. But if it’s open, participatory and transparent, everybody has more control and it would be less of a problem than today.”

FuturICT was not aiming to collect data in the way the United States National Security Agency and other agencies have been revealed to be doing. And it didn’t want to use the data for commercial purposes as organisations like Google might wish to do.

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No crystal ball

Maybe FuturICT was too ambitious for its own good? In December 2011, American philosopher David Weinberger writing in the Scientific American

called FuturICTthe machine that would predict the future: if you dropped all the world’s data into a black box, could it become a crystal ball that would let you see the future?”

It even calls to mind an idea explored by the science fiction writer Isaac Asimov. In his Foundation series, he invents “psychohistory”, the science of predicting the possibility of various future outcomes.

Helbing smiles at this reference, as Asimov too changed career after training as a scientist. He bats away criticism about wanting to make the future predictable.

“We don't think that society and the economy can behave in totally predictable ways, nor would it be desirable.”

“The Living Earth Simulator would rather produce something like a weather forecast. We know it wouldn't work over the very long term but it could offer a certain probability of something happening over a couple of days. You can never totally eliminate randomness, it is part of the system. And in social systems randomness has quite a big role to play.”

Intifada and climate change

As an example Helbing cites a joint study carried out by his team, the Graduate Institute in Geneva and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

They looked at violence in Jerusalem between 2001 and 2009. By looking at the location of deaths and injuries in different areas of the city, the researchers extrapolated what would happen to the violence in each of four different scenarios. Their conclusion was that returning to 1967 borders and a strict separation of Jewish and Palestinian zones would do the most to reduce violence.

Another aspect, for the professor, is the bottom up approach, which could, for example be used to combat climate change.

“The majority of carbon dioxide is produced in urban zones where the majority of the world's population lives. We should try thinking about these people as possible agents of change. Cities that, like Zurich, want to reach a 2000 watt society, should join forces and learn from each other,” reckons Helbing.

“And that's one way of using FuturICT's participative global forum.”

The future is ICT

Even if the European gatekeepers decided against the project Steven Bishop remains convinced that an Earth simulator will come about one day.

“The UK government is trying to do one in transport. We wanted to include other things, health, energy, and so on. They may not do that in the same scale, but it is going to happen, there’s no doubt about it. I have seen some great research from FuturICT supporters recently, but this only seems to depress me even more since it would have been so great to coordinate and integrate these activities.”

Both professors feel that Europe has unfortunately missed out on a big opportunity. Helbing reckons that the famous simulator could one day see the light elsewhere – in the US, China, Japan or Russia.

Despite that, he says that FuturICT is still a live project. “We managed to weave together 25 countries who are interested in the project. The enthusiasm is there, media interest has not diminished and the public still follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Our websites get more hits than those of Graphene and the Human Brain Project, and that means something I think.”

‘Pumping billions’

Still, losing out on those billion euros is keenly felt. Helbing is frank, saying “there is no funding instrument that would allow us to pursue the grand vision of FuturICT”.

The researchers will have to fall back on much smaller-scale EU programmes, national funding and perhaps chase private sector engagement.

In Brussels, Daniel Pasini, head of the EU Flagship project unit, says that because of their scientific value, the four finalists will certainly not be forgotten. “These projects contain very valuable ideas, and there are many member states that are trying to see how they can support some of their activities.”

Helbing thinks that FuturICT is an essential project. “As a society, we've made significant investments in particle physics, in nuclear fusion, in astrophysics, in biotechnologies and in the human genome … we are also pumping billions into the financial system.

“Yet we are not improving our understanding of the socio-economic system. I think our society is paying a very high price for not understanding how it all works.”

21 bids, 2 winners

In 2009 the European Commission launched its “FET Flagships” programme targeting emerging and future technology (FET), promising Europe’s largest ever funding for research.

21 projects initially expressed interest.

In May 2011 six finalists were given €1.5 million (CHF in order to work up their proposals. Three of them were Swiss-led.

The two winners, chosen after a series of presentations, were announced on January 28, 2013.

One was the Human Brain Project coordinated by the EPFL, and the other the Swedish-led Graphene project.

Both projects will receive €1 billion, spread over ten years.

Half will come from the EU, the rest of member states, partner institutions and industrial backers.

The money will be spread over dozens of institutes and laboratories involved in the research.

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